Chapter Four: Making the Blind to See (Not as Hard as You Might Think)
Seesie all at the gates of Life
Seesie secrets, manfool lies
Seesie Death in all that liveses
Seesie the Path to the Woodsie Lord
– Fragment of a Pagan Verse
While I lay in that strange dream, the night had grown old and ragged as a sick whore's smile. I emerge from my hole into air that smells of morning, and the sky to the east is growing pale over the sprawl of the City. The night is dying, but I know certain elements of the City are still hard at work–including the fence I want to see.
The weight of the swag taken from Ardeth's mansion earlier in the night is a pleasant distraction, taking my attention off things I'm not willing to admit to yet. The overall job might be an embarrassing blight on my otherwise glorious career, but at least I'll make enough from the take to eat while I chase around ghosts and mysteries.
Heartless Perry is, as fences go, fairly honest. He gives a good price for items, and is open about his abject cowardice. 'Heartless' does not refer to any kind of callous or hardened nature on his part. Only a fool would trust him with sensitive information–the man cannot keep his mouth shut–but people do tell him things of a less secretive nature, because he's an incorrigible gossip and always knows juicy bits to share in return. He might even have heard something about the Keeper's murder, now at least two nights old–and a hefty transaction is just the thing to loosen his tongue.
Despite the frost-edged chill of a mid-autumn morning, Perry is sweating when I enter his shop. This is not unusual: Heartless Perry spends every waking moment in a gently seething state of anxious worry. Builder help him if he ever gets caught and sent to the forges at Cragscleft–he'll melt away entirely in a fortnight. He gives me a nervous smile as I nudge the door shut behind me and heaves himself up out of the chair. "Garrettཀ Long time no seeཀ"
"Perry." I drop the sack of swag taken from Ardeth's manor onto the stained countertop with a heavy clank. Perry's single eye lights up.
"Hey, business is good, yeah?" He's tactful, at least. The take is decent, but compared to some of my jobs in the past it's pitiful. And it's been a goodly while since I last put in an appearance in his establishment at all.
"Good enough," I reply, and lean on the counter as the fence begins removing items from the bag and examining them. "For laying low," I add after a moment.
Perry grunts. "We've all been layin' low, what with the insanity goin' on out there. It took me three days to work up the guts to go outside after those taffin' statues started walkin'. You see that?"
"Some," I reply. What an understatement. I allow Perry to work in silence for a few minutes longer, then I ask, "Hear anything interesting lately?"
"Heh, you mean aside from the whole statues-coming-to-life-and-killing-people thing?"
"Aside from that, yes." I remind myself to keep any hint of irritation or impatience out of my voice; Perry spooks easily, and for once I'm not trying to intimidate information out of him.
"Coupla nobles picked up some prime pieces over the summer; I might be able to set up a job for you."
"Maybe later. I was thinking more along the lines of strange stuff."
"Strange?" Perry pauses in his examination of a heavy gold wrist cuff to squint at me in confusion.
The conversation is getting away from me. I'm not used to pumping people like Perry for information on the weird–I always had the Keepers for that, before. "Look," I say, sighing. "A couple of nights ago there was a murder in the Old Quarter. A really bloody one. You hear anything about that?"
"Oh, that." Heartless Perry thinks for a moment, then shrugs. "Not a lot," he admits. "Just that it was bloody, like you said. Nobody knows who they corpse was. It isn't all that weird-people bite it in that quarter all the time. Why you wanna know?"
"I...thought it might be related to an old job."
A faintly worried expression enters Perry's single eye, and the flesh around his eyepatch creases. "You mean...whoever carved that poor taffer up might come after you?" Or me, he doesn't say–but he doesn't have to. His face is a poorly written book, and I learned to read it ages ago.
"No, nothing like that," I lie. "I just wanted to know if you'd heard anything. If you do," I add, allowing a harder note enter my voice, "you'd better tell me right away."
"Yeah, sure, 'course I will, Garrett," Perry reassures me hastily. He finishes sorting the loot, we negotiate an acceptable price, and he passes me a bag of coin. As I turn to go he clears his throat and says. "Don't know if this counts, Garrett..."
I pause, and look over my shoulder.
He shifts his weight, looking uneasy. "But...I think I might have heard somethin' after all."
I turn around fully, and wait, saying nothing.
A drop of sweat rolls down his cheek. "I just, I didn't think it was all that important..."
"Spit it out, Perry," I growl.
"Blind Meg...she was there when they found the body. I heard she had one of her little...funny turns. Don't know if that means anything."
It might mean nothing. But I know to my own cost that it doesn't pay to ignore what the street folk have to say about goings-on. "If you think of anything more," I tell Perry, "anything at all...you know how to get a message to me."
Blind Meg lives down at the Docks. Most beggars in the City do: it's easier, generally speaking, to convince foreigners to part with their coin than most natives. Meg takes a creative approach and rather than simply begging sets herself up as a soothsayer of the extremely creepy variety. I know of her by reputation only; beggars generally operate during daylight hours.
It's a little irritating, actually, how much time I've had to spend in the sun lately; if I'm not careful, I'll end up with sunburn. Or shackle-gall. With this worry to keep me alert, I make my way through the streets to the Docks without drawing undue notice from the bulldogs. Watchmen on duty during the day aren't as alert as their graveyard-shift brethren, but they make up for it by being more numerous.
I cross Stonemarket–restraining myself magnificently from the temptations offered by that pickpocket's paradise–and slip past the ongoing repairs at the Docks Gate. Construction is pretty much perpetual in the City these days; setting aside the destruction caused on the night of the Statues' Ball, there was the collapse of the Clocktower shortly before that, not to mention the riots and the Great Fire that swept the City two years ago when Karras and his Mechanists fell–and, of course, the widespread damage caused by the Trickster's beasts when they escaped the Maw and rampaged through the City two years before that. Sometimes, when I'm in the mood to feel guilty, I allow myself to be reminded that I'm directly responsible for most it.
And yet, despite the chaos and destruction that have fallen upon the City–and the never-ending wars with Blackbrook–the beggars like Blind Meg survive. Also the whores and the thieves and the fences–we're a resilient lot, we criminals. Perhaps it's because we have so much more practice at survival than everyone else.
I find Blind Meg near the quay, huddled beneath a sagging awning made up of a ragged blanket and some splintered, uneven poles. She has the shapeless look all the beggars acquire when the weather begins to grow cold and they begin layering on whatever clothing they can find; greasy dark hair heavily streaked with grey lies in snarls and tangles over her shoulders. She has an unlucky traveler, probably newly disembarked from his ship, in her thrall. A bony hand holds the poor man's wrist in a grip that looks painful, but his efforts to get away are halfhearted: he's staring at her in rapt, horrified fascination as she rambles on about his "future." From where I'm standing, it doesn't sound too nice. When she starts talking about death and the pox, he drops a few coins into the bowl sitting by her left knee and darts away the instant she releases his wrist. He looks a little panicked; I can't really blame him.
As money-making strategies go, it's incredibly effective. Judging by the number of coins in the old woman's begging bowl, people give her money just so she'll shut up and let them get away from prophecies of their imminent, horrible (and graphically described) demise.
Wondering what I've just let myself in for, I sit down on the ground in front of Blind Meg and wait for her to acknowledge my presence. There's rules for dealing with the different types of beggars. I still remember most of them from my own days as a child beggar. Meg is one of those that won't talk to just anybody; she's more con-artist than panhandler, really, and she isn't interested in wasting her time on anyone who isn't a mark. If I want her to talk to me, I'll have to show her some respect first–and, eventually, the color of my money.
She takes her time, fussing with her collection of filthy shawls and scarves, squirreling away the bulk of the money in her bowl (it doesn't do for a beggar, even one like Meg, to appear too successful), and generally ignoring my presence entirely. I shift into a more comfortable position on the cobblestones and wait, keeping a firm grip on my impatience. There are far, far too many people out here in the daytime...
At last Meg lifts her eyes to mine. Despite her name, Blind Meg is not actually blind. Her eyesight is at least as good as mine; better, probably, since she has two natural eyes to my one. Hers are sunk deep in her skull with years of poor food and poor living, but they're dark and beady-bright as a bird's. "So," she says, in the wheezing cackle that probably scares the heebies out of her marks, "you come before Blind Meg. What is it she sees that the great thief cannot?"
"I imagine you see much more than I, mother," I reply, keeping my tone polite and respectful. When I was a boy on the streets, I knew as well as every other urchin that it didn't pay to anger the old beggars. Their age meant they were good at survival, and with that came a ruthlessness that I respected even now, more than two decades later. "I hear," I continue, when she does not respond, "that you saw the man murdered in the Old Quarter two nights ago." I drop a silver coin into the wooden bowl at her knee. "I wonder if you would share with me what you saw."
"Men die," she says. "Some harder than others, but in the end it is the same."
The old hag is trying to run up the price. "Perhaps, but this one died particularly hard. I hear," I add, letting an edge enter my voice even as I drop another coin in the bowl, "that you saw at least some of his death. I want to know more, mother, and I'm not made of silver."
She sniffs; annoyed, probably, at my unwillingness to play her games. "I heard noises, two nights gone. From an alley. Thought it was one of the dead taffers, gotten over the barricades, come looking for a snack. But it weren't." She shudders, and naked fear shows in her eyes. I can feel tension spreading across my shoulders; beggars don't scare easily. "Was a man," she says, and all theatricality is gone from her voice. "Or something that was shaped like a man. Hooded, dressed all in blacks and greys, like a thief...but no face. Just...metal. All scratched up, like he'd been gouging at it."
Something cold tightens around my heart. "Or like it was covered in symbols?"
She shakes her head, eyes staring blindly through me at the memory. "Maybe. Didn't look well done."
No, that it wouldn't. Not like it once had, when their masks shone in the darkness with the beautiful, deadly glyphs for fear and concealment, and swift killing. "It didn't see you?" A foolish question; of course it had seen her. But whatever the Keeper Enforcer's purpose, it had not seen the need to kill one old beggar woman. Small mercies, I suppose.
"Looked right at me," Meg whispers. "Felt like my soul was draining right out of me." She makes a Pagan sign to ward away evil, and follows it up with the sign of the Builder. "And then it was just–just gone. Vanished into air."
"And your 'funny turn' when the corpse was found the next morning?"
The fear fades from her eyes and she shrugs. "Didn't hurt business none. Figured if the thing what killed that man weren't gonna do for me when I saw it, it ain't likely to come 'round later for the trouble of killing me."
The Enforcer–and his buddies, if he had them–might do just that, if they learned she'd been talking to me. No reason to tell her that, though; there was nothing I could do to prevent it if they did, and there wasn't any point in scaring the life out of her. I get to my feet. "Thanks for the information, mother." I toss another few coins–copper this time–into her bowl. "I'd lay low for awhile, if I were you," I add, prodded by some strange impulse into offering some kind of warning.
She snorts. "Layin' low won't keep me fed, boy." She eyes me, her gaze settling at last on my left hand. "You better watch yourself, pal rolko. You're in deeper than you know."
I turn away from the old hag before my expression can give me away, but her cackle follows me. Beggars are shrewd, I remind myself. They have to be. Perhaps she recognized me for a former street urchin who left the brotherhood, or perhaps she mistook me for an undercover bull. Either reason, surely, is a perfectly legitimate explanation for why she would call me 'brother betrayer' in thieves' cant.
She has no way of knowing that, in the Keeper Prophecies, 'Brethren and betrayer' was one of the titles that, at times, referred to me.
I ask around a little more, but it's no surprise to discover that no one else saw anything. Even if they had, word gets around fast that I was bothering Meg for information–and now I'm not spreading enough coin around to convince anyone else to talk. I can sense the unease, however, that lies behind the stonewalling: the street folk are afraid of something. Perhaps it's only the aftermath of the Hag and her horrors–and all the other horrors that have stalked the City in the recent past–but I'm not willing to bet my life on it. I can feel something too, something dark and hidden–and I would wager that it has everything to do with the Keepers, the broken glyph-magic and, to my dismay, me.
Some breathing room might have been nice, but if wishes were horses...
I spend the rest of the day wandering the City, avoiding the Watch and trying to guess what my next step ought to be. I've no doubt that Drept will make good on his promise, and that he will dredge up more information than I'll know what to do with–but I still owe him at least another day to research, and there is still no guarantee any of that information will be in any way useful to me.
As the sun sinks behind the buildings (and Builder, have I been spending far too much of my time wandering around in the daylight lately) and shadows close in over the City streets, I find myself walking along the Barricade–a thick stone wall, these days–that separates the Quarantined area of the Old Quarter from the rest of the City. There are few people here; even most criminals avoid going to close to the Barricade, whatever the time of day.
It makes it much easier to pin down the individual who has been tailing me for the past hour. They're pretty good at it, in a crowd–not good enough I didn't notice, of course–but it is a great deal harder to follow someone unobtrusively on a near-empty street. I wait until a knot of laborers–on their way to the tavern after a long day, I'm sure–round a corner, then speed up to slip behind the group, putting them between me and my tail. From there, it's easy enough to duck into a narrow alley-mouth, already full of shadows. While I wait, I take the time to pull of the eyepatch (I'm wearing my daytime costume again) and ditch it and the hat. Both are easy enough to replace.
I don't have to wait long. The sound of quickening footsteps reached my ears–my pursuer, realizing suddenly that he'd lost sight of me–and a moment later my hand shoots out of the alley to close on thick, coarse wool. A strangled yelp bounces off the brickwork as I yank my quarry none-too-gently into the alley. I shift my grip to the front and pin the struggling shape–smaller than I am, and less muscular–against the grimy wall.
I recognize my pursuer from touch alone: that coarse wool belongs to the robe of a Keeper novice–and the frightened, spotted young face and the general lack of skill in remaining wholly unseen confirm this. We stand there a moment, while the boy's chest heaves in panic-shortened breath and I consider my options.
"Well?" I demand, after the silence has stretched uncomfortably.
"K-Keeper," the boy gasps, "I'm sorry, I didn't–"
I cut him off. "I'm not a Keeper. What do you want?"
The boy's forehead wrinkles in confusion. "You're–you're the One True–"
It's the work of a heartbeat to transfer my grip from the front of his robes to his throat. I don't squeeze (well, I don't squeeze hard) but the kid breaks off with a squeak. "You finish that sentence," I tell him, keeping my tone conversational, "and you'll regret it. What. Do. You. Want."
I feel his throat bob nervously under my palm as he swallows. "Your help," he whispers at last.
The song, at least, hasn't changed. I let my grip on the boy's throat relax a little. "The Keepers are done, kid. Finished, gone, over with. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get the hell out of my life."
"We're not finished," the boy insists. "And–and you have to help. You always have before."
I hate the truth. It's damned difficult to argue with, especially when it's thrown out there, naked and unavoidable, like a drunk lord fleeing his mistress's bedchamber when her husband comes home. "Listen, you–" I break off as every hair on my arms and on the back of my neck suddenly stands straight up.
::Find the boy. He must be silenced.::
Hell. Swearing under my breath, I let go of the boy's throat and grab him once more by the robe. "Run."
Of course he argues. "Run, damn you, and hide. Your life depends on it." I shove him, hard. "Move."
Thank all the gods of idiots, he actually listens. Or, possibly, his survival instinct finally staggers to its feet and realizes there's predators of the worst sort coming. Whatever the case, he pales and, without another word, bolts. Within moments, he's vanished–his skills seem to have improved in direct relation to his actual danger. That's some relief, I suppose.
I don't know how it is that I can hear the Keeper Enforcers. It startled the hell out of me the first time I heard their mind-to-mind communication, when they were hunting me just a few weeks ago. I didn't question it at the time–it saved my life–and I don't question it now. I can hear them, and they don't know it.
The brick walls that form the alley are crumbling and rough; I scramble up them, feeling gritty mortar and clay beneath my palms, keenly aware that my armor and most of my weapons are miles away in my hideout. It's not my most graceful or silent ascent ever–but it isn't supposed to be. I want the Enforcers' attention on me, gods help me, not the kid. I hook my fingers into the lead gutter at the top of the wall, pray it won't pull away from its fastenings, and haul myself up.
And come face to face with an Enforcer.
My luck being what it is, I half expected this. The Enforcer, on the other hand, clearly wasn't, and freezes like a novice thief come face-to-face with an angry guard. Without slowing my momentum, I reach out and hook one hand into the front of the thing's armor–like mine, it involves quite a lot of straps–and haul backwards. The Enforcer doesn't make a sound–they can't speak, or even cry out, so far as I can tell–as it tumbles off the edge of the wall and, ricocheting off the opposite wall of the alley, hits the ground below hard. On the rooftops nearby, I can see flickers of movement as the other Enforcers notice the struggle and its abrupt end.
I'm not big on killing, but in the Enforcers' case–well, I'm not going to be as careful as I usually would be, and I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. Taking out one of their buddies also means I now have the rest of the pack's undivided attention.
I don't like Enforcers.
The feeling is mutual.
::The Betrayer! Kill him!:: The cry echoes in my mind, setting up a dull throb behind my eyeballs as the hatred in it washes over me. I don't waste any more time. The Thieves' Highway in the Old Quarter is the easiest to get over, because the buildings in this part of the City are crammed so closely together. My breath is loud in my ears as I race across the rooftops. It's still too light; the Enforcers cannot blend so easily into the shadows at this time of day, but neither can I. For now, it's going to be a flat-out race. My one consolation is that the glyph-magic that once lent the Enforcers their preternatural speed and agility is gone.
It isn't much consolation; full dark is still too far off for my convenience, and I can only run so long before my age–and old injuries–slow me down enough for them to catch me. I'm not keen on the idea of a toe-to-toe fight with even one Enforcer, let alone an entire pack. A fighter I am not; I've survived for thirty-four years by quick wits, a near-supernatural ability to fade into shadows, and an encyclopedic knowledge of incredibly dirty tricks. Most of those tricks, unfortunately, require the use of equipment–equipment that is, like my armor, currently not in the same location as me. If things keep going as they are, my immediate future is going to involve very messy, protracted, and agonizing death. Mine, unfortunately.
My luck runs out faster than I'd like. (It always does.) The chase takes us perilously close to the Barricade Wall, that dubious protection the City relies upon to keep the zombies from embarking on an all-you-can-eat banquet. I notice that the Enforcers don't seem to want to get too close to it. I'm not terribly keen on the idea myself, but frankly I'll take zombies over this bunch any day; the zombies don't run as fast. Hoping I'm not signing myself up as this evening's main course, I feint a dodge at an Enforcer that has popped up in front of me, then jump across the gap between a sagging roof and the top of the Barricade Wall. The Enforcer nearest me does not follow, and I feel a brief surge of triumph. I won't be able to move as quickly–the Barricade isn't in the best condition, and the stones are treacherous on top–but if the enemy won't follow me, I can afford to be a little leisurely.
I really should know better.
::Shoot him. Our other quarry escapes.::
Once again, my own arrogance comes around to bite me in the ass. I forget that, while the Enforcers prefer an up-close kill, they also carry ranged weapons in the form of nasty little crossbows that nevertheless pack a lethal punch. On the roof across from me, I see the Enforcer pull the weapon from his belt and raise it.
I know it's coming–and I know there is no way out. I try to dodge anyway, to jump down the other side of the Barricade, in the hope that the shot won't be immediately fatal or that it might miss me altogether. The click seems unnaturally loud in my ears, and a heartbeat later I know I haven't moved fast enough. Agony erupts in my upper chest as the crossbow bolt tears through cloth, skin, and muscle, finally scraping on bone. The force of it–greater than an arrow fired from a bow–spins me around and I feel my boot soles slip on the crumbling stones of the Barricade.