Read Part I first
Zion knelt with the thirteen other boys that picked pockets for the Thief Master. Rael himself looked over the piles of gemstones, coins, and jewelry that sat in front of each boy as they crouched on the damp stone floor, heads down. Sometimes, Zion saw the cracks in the floor when he closed his eyes at night, but he kept his eyes down until Rael’s hand landed lightly on his head. Rael nudged the pile in front of Zion with his boot, his thin lips squirming in a smile.
“This is all?”
Zion dug his bare feet into the stone and looked Rael in the eyes. “Yes, Rael.”
“A little mouse saw you talking with a Great Merchant in the bazaar,” Rael said.
Zion fought the urge to look down the line of boys. He trusted no one in the catacombs—another lesson hard earned at the hands of the Thief Master. Rael’s moods and favorites shifted more quickly than torchlight in a draught and the disfavored always sought ways to change their lot.
“I spoke to his guardsman after the Merchant surprised me. I did not want to lose a hand,” Zion said.
“Why would the guard of a Grand Merchant speak to the likes of you? My little mouse said it was a lengthy conversation.”
Zion wondered—not for the first time—where Rael came from. His accent and words were cultured, even though he spoke the gutter-tongue of thieves and beggars to his boys.
“He felt sorry for the refugees and asked if I got enough to eat. I think he might have offered me food or coin, but his master pulled him away,” Zion said.
He hoped Rael could not see the way his heart hammered under his tunic or the way Solas’ coin seemed to burn into his chest. Rael grabbed a handful of Zion’s hair and tilted his head back until the tendons in his neck threatened to pop.
“Are you lying, little Zion?” Rael’s breath caressed his cheek, smelling of the cloves he chewed. “I always know when you lie.”
“I swear it is the truth on my immortal soul,” Zion said, gratified by the flicker in Rael’s eyes. To swear such an oath on a lie would doom his immortal soul to the darkness. If one believed such things.
Rael released him and smoothed his hair down flat again. “But of course. You learned your lesson about carrying false tales, didn’t you? Next time you bring in so little, little Zion, I shall not be so benevolent.”
Rael flicked Zion’s cheek and Zion tried not to flinch. He looked back down at the ground, knowing that Rael would see the hatred burning in his eyes even in the uncertain torchlight. The next boy was questioned about his earnings and Zion turned his head away at the sharp sound of flesh striking flesh and the boy’s pained yelp. He thought of his meeting with Solas and tried to gauge the time. It was always night in the catacombs. He would need to run if he was to meet Solas at the Broken Staff before moonrise. When the boys were finally released, they rose with sore knees and stiff backs and each boy received a silver coin and five coppers for dinner before they scattered like rats. Zion made his way back up to the surface in time to hear the final bells of the evening prayers sing their bronze dirge over the darkening city. Zion tucked his coins into several different pockets. He had lost many a night’s earning when he first joined Rael—the older boys waited outside the entrances and exits to the catacombs, ready to beat the weaker ones bloody for their few coppers. Anything they found that a boy held back from Rael would win favor for weeks. Zion learned his own ways in and out of Rael’s domain, abandoning them and finding new ones if he were ever discovered.
He waited until any watching eyes would be hard-pressed to follow him before breaking into a run towards the Broken Staff. He ignored the moans of the huddled beggars and grunting pairs in the shadows. The whores had begun their nightly work as well. Panting, he finally slowed his pace several streets from the inn. It would not do to arrive out of breath. There was a small fountain in the circle formed where three streets met. At its center, a woman with one arm and no hand held a pitcher from which a stream of lukewarm, brackish water fell into the shallow, moss-greened basin. Zion thrust his hands under the stream and splashed the water onto his face and legs, trying to clean the worst of the dust from his feet. The Broken Staff was familiar with beggars, but a boy alone would be noticed. He felt for the coin; strangely cool despite the heat of the night and the warmth of his skin. When he reached the street where the Broken Staff leaned against similar establishments, he hesitated just outside the pool of light. Although the man spoke kindly—and in his mother tongue—it did not prove he meant well by Zion. Rael had once seemed protector and father. Zion straightened and moved Solas’ coin into a pocket in his sleeve where it would be easier to access. He was not a child as he had been when Rael found him. There were more than coins hidden in the pockets in his sleeves.