Chapter 1: Around Midlnight
The girl shivered and pulled her cloak more tightly around her. It was a cold night and her breath was misty on the still air. She crept into the square and flattened herself against the wall, listening for anything that might mean a problem, maybe the bark of a dog or the distant tramp of a Guardian patrol. There was nothing, just the bell in the distant tower of the Ceremonium marking the hour.
She scanned the buildings. All were in darkness. They were the simple homes of small merchants, tidy and respectable, just the sorts of places that she had been told to target. She remembered the instruction. ‘Leave the big houses at the top of the hill. They’ve all got high walls, and guards. Go for the ones in the middle town like you’ve been shown. Plenty of good stuff there.’
She thought she was eight but she might still have been only seven. She lived in a shack on the edge of the River Settlements but that was not home. Home was in another city far away, and she could still remember a big house, her mother, her father, her older brother. Now they were gone and there was just her.
She’d entered the city with a boy. All the gates had been locked at dusk, as they were every day. They would not open again until dawn, but there were other ways in, tunnels and passages built over the years and forgotten by almost everyone. She and the boy had been taken by a man they called Scorpion to a spot where the river passed under the city ramparts, emerging through a passage foul with sewage. It was so cramped that even though both the children were small they were only just able to squeeze through.
‘Get in there,’ Scorpion growled, pointing to the rank opening with his whip. ‘When you get through, split up.’ There was no need to say that, they knew from their previous raids that there was a better chance of avoiding the Guardians if they were on their own. The man bent down and stroked the girl’s hair. ‘Bring me something good,’ he purred. ‘You know what I like.’ She was his best snatcher, a fast worker who always came back with a worthwhile catch.
The girl understood. She knew that to return empty-handed, or even with something Scorpion judged to be of insufficient worth, would make him angry. Those who made him angry were beaten. If he was in a bad mood they might even be put in the pit.
Alone in the cold of the night, the girl shuddered. She had got wet in the stream and was now paying the price in the freezing dark. She blew on her hands to try to get some warmth into them. She wondered about the boy. How was he getting on?
She slid along the edge of one of the buildings, silent and smooth as a shadow, looking for weaknesses. There were none. The people who lived here had been robbed enough times to be careful, and everything was locked and barred. Then she spotted something, a single chink in the armour of the blank wall. It was above her head, a window where the wooden casement had warped and no longer closed properly against the frame. It was the merest crack, but that would be enough. She’d done it before: jump, grip, reach in, spring the catch, wriggle through. On the other side she would drop lightly to the floor and wait until she was sure all was clear. Then she would quickly grab whatever caught her eye and be out before anyone knew.
It would be easier if the boy was with her because she could climb on his back to help her get in. She was glancing around to see if there was something she could drag to the wall to scramble onto, when she heard a sound behind her, a faint, metallic whisper like a blade being drawn from its sheath. She froze. It wasn’t the Guardians, they made much more noise than that. She peered into the dark. Nothing. She backed into a fold in the wall, crouching to make herself small.
Not small enough. Suddenly they were on her, five of them, each from a different direction. She made to run but every way was barred. One grabbed her hair, another her arm. She opened her mouth but her scream was cut off as the point of a knife speared her windpipe. Her knees folded and she sank to the ground, clutching her throat. Her eyes bulged with the horror of what was happening to her.
Her attackers made a circle around her, watching the swelling circle of blood, listening to the gurgle of her life ebbing away. Her bladder released, she convulsed, twitched, her chest gave one final heave and it was over. She was still.
Their leader poked her with his foot. His nose wrinkled in disgust. ‘Phew. She stinks like she’s been swimming in the sewer.’
‘She probably has,’ said one of the others. ‘That’s what the Settlement rats do.’
The group’s leader took out a large hunting knife, a zirca, and stooped. With a swift hack, he removed the little finger from her left hand. Then he wet it in her blood and drew on her forehead a symbol: the letter R. He took a rag from his waist pouch, wrapped the tiny finger in it and tucked it away. Finally, he wiped his blade on her smock, sheathed it, stood up and looked at his companions.
‘Well done,’ he whispered. ‘That’s another of the vermin gone.’
‘One more for the Rat Catchers,’ murmured the young man at his side. ‘We must be well ahead now.’
‘At this rate we’ll soon run out of rats to catch,’ said one of the others. ‘There’ll be none of ‘em left.’
The rest of the group laughed. In one of the windows a light appeared.
‘Ssh. Split up,’ whispered their leader. ‘Same time tomorrow. Meet at the usual place. Go.’ He held up his fist in a raised salute.
The five figures melted into the dark, each taking a separate route. None of them looked back.
The street was empty once more. The lamp that had been lit was extinguished and its lighter, unable to see anything amiss, returned to bed.
Time passed. The night passed. The sky lightened, dawn came and the searching sun crept along the wall, feeling out the frail body and the pool of blood, a crimson halo bright as a poppy on the frosty ground.
Chapter 2: Brothers
‘What do you think you’re going to get, then?’
Peglar didn’t reply.
‘A fifth?’ Ragul persisted. ‘A tenth? A twentieth?’ He sneered. ‘Lost your tongue, runt boy?’
Ragul always called him that, even though Peglar had grown a lot in the past year and was now actually taller than his half-brother. However, he was nowhere near as strong. Peglar was skinny, whereas Ragul was thickset and sturdy.
Abruptly Ragul turned nasty. ‘You answer me when I talk to you, you ignorant little turd.’ He punched Peglar hard on the bicep, a quick jab with one knuckle stuck out for maximum hurt.
Pain shot down Peglar’s arm and his eyes watered. He clenched his teeth and swallowed. He was not going to give Ragul the satisfaction of seeing the effect he’d had.
They had been told to attend on their father, Lord Karkis, at the sixth bell. Peglar had got there early, wearing a clean tunic and cloak and with his hair brushed. Ragul arrived much later, sweating and smelling of the stables. They had both been waiting in the lobby outside the study since.
‘I don’t think he wants to see us about the Sharing,’ Peglar said at last.
Ragul’s mouth turned down in contempt. ‘Course it’s about the Sharing, lame brain. He’s going to announce how much of the estate we’re each going to get. Why else would he want to see us and our mothers all together?’ He ostentatiously put his thumbs in his belt and stood with his legs apart in the stance of a warrior. He was wearing a zirca, the stubby hunting blade used by the people of the plains. He was showing off, demonstrating that because he was in the army he was permitted to carry a weapon in the presence of their father.
He moved towards Peglar and put his face very close. The smell of horses was even stronger and the odour of beer soured his breath. ‘Oh, I forgot,’ he said. ‘Under the law you can’t inherit anything at all. Because you haven’t been initiated, have you, diddums?’ He pinched Peglar’s cheek between his forefinger and thumb. ‘You’re not a man, you’re still a little boy, and that means you can’t take part in a Sharing.’
Peglar wanted to escape but he forced himself to hold Ragul’s gaze, and the two stared at each other. Then Ragul shook his head, gave Peglar a half-hearted push and turned away.
Peglar stared at the flagged floor. Two years ago Ragul had gone through Initiation, the ritual which had conferred on him the rights of a citizen of Chamaris. It had been his fifteenth birthday. Peglar was already well past that and had been expecting his own turn, but it hadn’t come. Until it did, in the eyes of the law he was still a child.
The lobby was without windows, low ceilinged and dim. Peglar’s back was aching but there was nowhere to sit. Ragul unsheathed his zirca and inspected it, eyeing the blade and trying it with his thumb. It looked wickedly sharp.
The door opened and Feldar, their father’s Steward, stood framed in the opening. He looked from one of them to the other, nodded to Ragul, straightened Peglar’s cloak with a tug and said, ‘Your father is ready for you.’
Peglar hung back and allowed Ragul to swagger into the study ahead of him. The room was high and square. It was dark, and the few feeble lamps did little to lift the gloom. The walls were covered in faded tapestries and paintings of old men, long dead. The carpet on the stone flags was so worn its pattern had nearly gone. It had been a warm day, but even so a huge fire was burning in the grate. There were papers on every surface, piles of them, clamouring for attention.
Their father sat at a massive wooden table. The purple cloak of Councillor was draped loosely around his shoulders, and his Master’s sash with its golden keys hung from his neck. He was flanked by his two wives. One of them was Chalia, Peglar’s mother. She was their father’s second wife, half his age, quiet, and kind. Peglar thought she was outstandingly beautiful, and so did many others. On the other side was Ragul’s mother, Vancia. She was the first wife and enjoyed her seniority. She was older than Chalia, haughty and domineering. Ragul had inherited her dark hair and complexion, but whereas she was tall and stick-thin, he was stocky and inclined to fat.
Their father did not invite his sons to sit, and they remained standing at the opposite end of the table. He glanced briefly at Ragul, then regarded Peglar, his head on one side as if judging a horse he’d been offered but thought wasn’t worth the asking price. He took off his glasses, thick as pebbles, and rubbed his eyes.
Meanwhile, Peglar studied him. Although this man was his father they rarely met and he hardly knew him. His face was thin and deeply lined, peppered with brown flecks. He had a long, narrow nose and his hair, grey and wispy, was swept back over his crown to show a broad, sloping forehead. He was Lord Karkis, head of the House of the Leopard and Master of the City of Chamaris. For many years he had been the most powerful man in the land, but now he looked old and tired. Even so, there was steel in his gaze and Peglar had to look away. It was as if his father had been waiting for this small sign of submission before he was prepared to speak.
‘Peglar, you present me with a problem.’
‘Yes, father.’ He knew it was a useless response, but some sort of answer seemed to be required and that was what came out. He saw Vancia sneer and his mother looked uncomfortable.
‘Yes father,’ Karkis mimicked. ‘Yes, indeed. So, Peglar, what is my problem?’
There was nothing he could say. He had no idea what his father was talking about. He was nearest the hearth and the fire was hot on his bare calves. He shuffled to put a bit of distance between himself and the flames.
‘Well?’ said his father.
‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir.’
‘Don’t you now?’ Karkis snapped. I thought that when you said, “Yes father,” you meant that you did.’
There was a small explosion at his side as Ragul covered his snigger with a cough. Peglar felt his cheeks burning and he knew he was blushing. Vancia was clearly enjoying his embarrassment. His mother was watching him with concern.
‘No, I’m sorry father. I don’t know what your problem is.’
‘Well then,’ said Karkis, icily, ‘I shall have to enlighten you. My problem is this. I have two sons. The older one is a fine young man. He was initiated into manhood two years ago and now serves with distinction in the army. He is a credit to this family and his city. The other is you.’