A long piece, this time, to make up for how long it’s been since my last post.
A deadfish is a creature somewhat like a flatfish or ray. An ambush predator, it feeds by lying motionless on the bottom, concealed by its natural camouflage. When unsuspecting prey comes within reach, the deadfish erupts violently from the sea floor to capture its prey. A ‘deadfish run” happens periodically when one deadfish erupts and crosses the hunting range of another. When the second deadfish erupts, both will veer sharply and inevitably cross other ranges, causing a cascade of eruptions. Thus, the phrase is often used to refer to an action that causes a number of reactions, with unintended and usually negative consequences.
Joss and Jemmy Salazar shouldn’t have been there to begin with. It was just supposed to be a lark, following after big brother Dario to find out where he went after lights-out. And it only got more exciting when the trail led to the Deadfish tavern.
Jemmy, the younger boy, hung back when they realized where Dario was headed. “We can’t, Joss!” He caught his older brother’s arm, pulling him back from the corner of the alley. “Amma said never go near that place. You know she’ll be mad…” Even in a whisper, the boy’s voice was scared.
“We got to, Jemmy!” Joss whispered back. “Dario isn’t s’posed to be here either. We gotta find out what he’s doing.” He leaned forward against Jemmy’s restraining hand, poking one eye around the corner. There were no street lights this near the end of harborside, not even any cheap torches, but there was enough light from the fish-oil lanterns on either side of the tavern’s doors to see their brother slip inside. The door closed behind him with a muffled thump, sending the low late-night mist swirling.
“They’re bootleggers, Joss!” Jemmy’s whisper was an urgent hiss. “Amma said!” He tugged again on Joss’ arm with both hands, throwing his slight weight into it.
Joss pulled his arm loose easily and Jemmy staggered against the alley wall, but Joss turned and reached out to steady him. “What does that even mean, bootleggers!” His dismissive tone fell from the lofty height of his three years seniority over the younger boy. “We got boots, and we got legs. Ain’t we bootleggers, then?” He leaned again to look around the corner.
“Amma said they just a’soon kill you as look at you.” Jemmy waited, hugging his arms around himself. “Joss.”
The older boy turned at the pleading note in his brother’s voice. Jemmy had gone still and small like he always did when he was scared. ‘Like a rabbit,’ Joss thought, not for the first time; ‘always freeze and look away.’ He shook his head with a faint frown, wondering again why his brother was always so scared. Then he took a quick breath and came back into the alley. He caught Jemmy’s arm and pointed. “Look there, Jemmy. It butts up against the Wall along there. I bet the storerooms go right into the rock!” He grinned at his brother, white teeth flashing against his olive skin, clearly visible even in the dark. He pointed again, at a warehouse off to the side. “I bet we could climb right up the rockway over there and get inside. There’s always holes.”
Jemmy backed away, eyes wide and frightened. “Oh, nonono, Joss, please no! You can’t!”
“But we got to, Jemmy! We gotta find out what Dario’s doing in there.” Joss grinned again, cajoling. “Anyway, you climb better’n me. Or—” he cocked his head and pursed his lips, watching Jemmy, thinking, then shook his head ruefully. “I guess you could wait here for me.” He suppressed a smile as Jemmy straightened away from the wall, face set in determination. It worked every time.
* * *
The rock face of the cliff they called the Wall was an easy climb here at the far end where it rose up from the Harbor. There was a space between two warehouses where it slanted back enough that the two boys went up like lizards, up the cliff face and then across over the roof of the warehouse, just as Joss had said. But when Jemmy caught sight of the small dark hole beneath the overhanging rock he balked again, and this time Joss couldn’t chance the noise to talk him through it. “I gotta go in, Jemmy,” he said, his whisper the barest breath of sound. “You wait for me here.” On the rooftop and out from the sheltering buildings the light of the rising moon was bright enough to see the quick, almost frantic shake of the younger boy’s head. “Where, then?”
Jemmy turned and looked out over the little plaza formed by the hairpin turn of the road, scanning the faces and roofs of the buildings surrounding them, and then his hand shot out, pointing to the roof of a minuscule balcony directly across from them. There was an ornamental relief carved up the building’s face, a remnant of its earlier life as a genteel waterside home; dingy, now, and perhaps crumbling in places, but still climbable by an agile young boy.
Joss nodded. “Wait there,” he hissed the words for emphasis. “Don’t go home! Soon as I find out what Dario’s doing here, I’ll come get you, I promise!”
Once again he saw the spasmodic nod in the moonlight, then watched as his little brother scrambled back across the rock face and out of sight. He waited, crouched beneath the overhang, until he saw Jemmy dart across the tiny plaza and swarm up the carved relief and then perch like a gargoyle on the balcony roof. He waved, and saw Jemmy wave back, and then he turned and crawled into the dark hole under the rock.
* * *
The door closed behind the young man with a soft thud, and he moved forward into the room with a breezy swagger. This late at night, the room was lit only by a fire slowly dying in the ancient fireplace and a plain fish-oil lantern smoking on a nearby table.
A chair sat in the middle of the taproom, facing the table. The lantern light flickered over the face of the man who sat there; a face full of fissures and crags, the face of a man who had spent long years in sun and wind and weather. A second man stood next to the chair, one lean hand resting on its plain wooden back, and as he turned the firelight caught his eyes, throwing back a hard yellow glitter. A third man stood off to one side, leaning against a pillar in the shadows under the loft over the bar. The barest edge of the lamplight caught the planes of his face and the red of his hair, but left his eyes in shadow.
The young man gave them both a glance and a faint sneer as he stopped facing the man at the table. “Cutter say ye wannet t’see me.” He spoke in the rapid slur affected by the street bravos on dockside, and the man at the table made a grimace that might have been a smile.
Might have been.
The man raised one hand and flicked his fingers at the chair before bringing it back to loosely cup the mug before him. “Sit, boy.” His voice was as rough as his skin, hoarse with years of smoke and shouting to be heard on the fishing boats. He caught the brief flash of annoyance in the young man’s eyes, and he gave the grimacing smile again. “Have a seat, Dodger.”
After a moment the young man slid past the man by the chair, giving him a wary glance before sitting down.
“Cutter said right,” the older man said, “I did want to see you.” That was all. He sat and stared at the young man he’d called Dodger, simply waiting, neither moving nor blinking. After a few moments, Dodger shifted uneasily, but the man continued to wait in motionless silence. Behind him the dying firelight gilded his shoulders and turned his hair to a nimbus of amber.
Another few heartbeats, and Dodger took a sharp breath and shifted in the chair, tossing his long hair back out of his eyes and crossing his legs in a show of nonchalance. “What ye wanta see me ‘bout, Kapelo?” His words came easily, with a kind of arrogant bravado, but the older man heard the edge of tension underneath and yet again made that grimacing smile. This time it held for more than a moment.
“You nervous, boy?”
“Nervous? Naah, bain’t nervous.” But the answer had come too quickly, and Dodger knew it. He shifted again, stretching and leaning back in the chair, but his shoulder touched the hand of the lean man standing behind him. Even as he started forward that hand moved, long fingers reaching and catching his shoulder in a hard grip. The hand pulled him back against the chair; the move easy, the grip hard and unyielding. But then the grip eased, and those long fingers patted him on the shoulder and then were still, resting there gently. Dodger flinched and looked up at the man as he made his move, then looked down at the fingers resting on his shoulder and licked his lips once. Those long, bony fingers reminded him of a kel arain, the deadly hunting spider that haunted the rocky heights above the City. He turned back to Kapelo and tossed his hair back again. “What I got t’be nervous about?”
“What, indeed?” Kapelo murmured. He picked up the mug before him and took a drink, but his eyes never left the young man’s. “Tell me, Dodger—what happened at Kyberg’s last night, hmm?”
Every ounce of breath left Dodger’s lungs, and took every thought in his head with it.
* * *
The hole was a tight squeeze, but Joss was small for his age and limber as a snake. He wriggled and writhed his way through the hole, and then felt the air of a larger space around him. He held still for a moment and closed his eyes, his vision still affected by the bright moonlight from outside. But once he opened his eyes again he could see a dim light off to one side. Slowly and quietly he slipped free of the fissure and found himself up on top of a stack of crates. Joss edged forward on the stack, freezing for a moment as a box creaked beneath him. He released the breath he’d caught, and looked over the edge of the stack.
The light came from a series of spaces between the floorboards and the wall; boards that had shrunk with age, leaving chinks and crevices wide enough to see through. Joss crept across the floor and lay down by the largest one, peering through into the room below. He could see a man sitting at a table almost directly under him, but the oil lantern’s shade hid the man’s face from his view. Voices drifted up from beneath him; one hard and dry as the boards he lay on, and with an unpleasant edge of mockery, while the other was familiar, and yet somehow—not. He shifted slightly, and finally caught sight of his brother, Dario, and he caught his breath.
Dario was changed. The lantern light, dim though it was, shone full on his face, and if Joss hadn’t known who sat there below him he might have passed him by as a stranger—a grim and dangerous one, and older than his brother’s sixteen years. Dario’s face had gone hard and arrogant, the kind of face Joss had seen on the sneering street toughs that roamed the dockside or jostled folk in the Fishmarket. Even his hair was different; the silky black strands Joss was used to seeing pulled back in a queue now hung loose in a ragged curtain, hiding Dario’s face like a veil. Every little while Dario tossed his head, flicking the hair back from his face, but even that movement held an angry arrogance Joss had never seen before. What was Dario doing?
* * *
The young man Kapelo had called Dodger ruthlessly crushed a rising panic and resisted the urge to wipe a sudden cold sweat off his face. He shifted in his seat, stretching out his legs before bracing one heel on the rung of the chair and hooking an elbow over the back post. It was no coincidence that the movement took him away from that long-fingered hand. It also gave him just one more moment to calm himself and think.
“Us loadin’ t’ skiffs from Kyberg’s roost, ye see?” Dodger gestured with the hand that rested over the chair back, his tone a mix of irritation and disdain. “An’ Grays come up out o’ nowhere, I don’t see where from. Willi and Yorgo, they’s inna roost, they can’t get out, damn Grays a’ready got t’ doors. Louse, he up top, shiftin’ crates, he see t’ Grays an’ drop ‘em, try t’ run.” Dodger laughed, a derisive snort. “Run inta two of ‘em come out t’ alley.” He shifted once again, crossed his leg over his knee and rested one hand at the top of his boot. In the dim light he missed how Kapelo’s eyes narrowed and then flicked to the man behind the chair and back. “Jiso’s inna skiff, he push off t’ run for it, but t’ Grays, they got t’ cutter out. Jiso goes over side, an’ I don’t see him come up.”
“And where were you, Dodger?” Kapelo’s voice was soft, almost soothing, and Dodger relaxed somewhat against the chair back.
“I’s onna dock, t’ hand off ta Jiso. Louse drop t’ crate, an’ I duck. I see t’ Grays, I slip down over side, in t’ water. I go under dock, alla way up under t’ pilings. Stay ‘til tide-turn.”
“And then, Dodger?” Kapelo asked, lightly tapping his fingers on the table. “What did you do next?”
“What, then?” Dodger flicked his hand dismissively. “I swim alla way harborside, come up by t’ fisher boats. Ain’t nobody there, so I go home.”
“Home.” Kapelo shook his head slightly. “It’s odd, don’t you think, how the last three of my arrangements have gone awry. Arrangements in which you played a part, Dodger.”
This time Dodger saw that flick of the eyes—from Kapelo’s hands, to Dodger’s face, and then up to that of the man at his back. He was unable to stop the widening of his eyes, but instead of turning to look behind him it was merely a twitch of his head. “You don’t think—” he blurted out the phrase, sitting bolt upright and dropping his foot to the floor, “You do! You think I tell ‘em!” He shook his head vehemently, silken hair flying. “It be stupid tell t’ Grays on you! An’ crazy do it three times in a row! Yeah, I’m new man, but I ain’t stupid, Kapelo! Who else you look at but me? You think I don’t know what you do to me if it was?” He flung his hands out in a wide gesture of negation. “But it wasn’t, Kapelo! It wasn’t me!”
Kapelo raised both hands in what was meant to be a calming gesture, though the lantern’s light made his expression anything but. Then he tipped his hands, spreading the fingers, and tilted his head to look at the young man. “You must admit, Dodger, that it is odd,” he said. “That after all this time, with never once a hitch, the first three times we brought you into a run the Grays arrive in such unseemly haste.” He pushed his mug aside and folded his hands before him. “Suspicious, one might say. Still, you seem such a forthright young man, and you protest so credibly.” He sighed and shook his head. “I do so hate having doubts about one of my own, but neither can I have my people marked and taken by the Grays. It just will not do. I will have to look into this more deeply.” He shook his head again, and the lamplight sheened across his eyes as he looked up and once again gave that grimace of a smile.
Dodger looked at Kapelo for another few moments, wary and uncertain. “We okay, then?” He asked, his voice hopeful. “I mean, you believe me, don’t you? That it wasn’t me tell t’ Grays?”
Kapelo inclined his head, neither yes nor no. “I have said that I will look into it.” There was a note of finality in his voice, an end to the discussion.
Dodger looked at Kapelo hopefully, the brash young tough back on balance. “Then c’n I get paid now?”
“Paid?” Kapelo said, and there was an edge to the softness of his voice. “Oh, most assuredly you shall be paid.” He raised his eyes to the man behind the chair. “Pay the man, Akhreio. Pay him what he’s owed.”
* * *
Up in the loft Joss watched with fascination as the stranger his brother had become told his tale. Dario working late in the night, loading crates for this man? And the Grays, the City Guardsmen, coming and chasing them down? But that would mean they were stealing from someone. Smuggling. That would mean—Joss caught his breath. That would mean that his brother was a smuggler, too. A thief.
A wave of sick dizziness took him. Chills alternated with heat, rushing through him, and he grabbed his hair with both hands, pulling hard until the pain cleared his head. What was he going to do? What would Amma say? What was he going to tell Jemmy?
He’d missed some of what they’d said, and he listened hard now to catch up. “…you believe me, don’t you? That it wasn’t me tell t’ Grays?”
Tell the Grays? What did he mean, ‘tell the Grays?’ His jaw dropped as it suddenly came together, that the man with the hard voice thought his brother had turned them in to the City Guard, and all at once he saw the jaws of disaster gaping wide. Heard that cold, hard voice saying, “Pay the man, Akhreio.”
The man standing behind his brother’s chair slid forward with a move like a snake on oiled glass. Before his brother could even twitch, the man had one arm around Dario’s throat and the other hand closed over his mouth and nose. He straightened, pulling Dario back and up off the chair, robbing him of any purchase or leverage. Dario shouted and screamed, his voice muffled behind that smothering hand, and he clawed and flailed at the arm across his throat. Fought and scratched and pulled at the hand over his face, the movements frantic at first, then slower and slower, weaker and weaker as lack of air took his consciousness.
Joss lunged up off the loft floor with a strangled cry of protest. They’d killed his brother, they’d killed Dario! He had to do something, he had to—he’d kill them. He’d, he’d… All of a sudden he felt a wash of ice go through him. The man below had heard him! Joss saw him glance up sharply, then look off to the side, where the other man had stood in silence all this time. Already the man was climbing the stairs to the loft, trying to be quiet, but his weight making the stairs creak. There wasn’t time for Joss to climb the crates and get out through the hole to the roof; he cast around for a place to hide, and saw that the great barrels of wine were stacked on wooden bucks, just like at Amma’s. And Joss knew he was small enough to slide underneath, because he and Jemmy had done it often enough at home.
He dropped down to the floor and slithered under the first barrel, then inched under the next. It was a tight fit; the floor buckled upward to meet the curve of the barrel, but he made it through. Now he was next to the wall, the living rock of the mountain. There was even a ledge; not much of one, but enough to get him off the floor if someone bent to look underneath. Then he bent his racing thoughts to breathing silently, though all he wanted to do was rage and scream and cry…
The man had reached the loft now, and was moving along the rows of crates and kegs and barrels, looking for whoever had made the noise. But after a few minutes of searching, he grunted in satisfaction, and headed back down the stairs. Joss waited until he heard the man’s footsteps on the floor below before he ventured out again and went back to his vantage point.
* * *
The red-haired man went heavily back down the stairs and crossed the taproom to the table where his employer sat. He barely glanced over to where Akhreio stood gazing down on the body at his feet. When Kapelo looked up the other simply shook his head.
“You’re sure, Lugros?”
“I’m sure.” Lugros shrugged. “I looked on top of the crates, and under the barrel bucks, too. You know there’s nowhere to hide up there. Must’ve been a rat.”
Kapelo nodded, then jerked his chin at the body on the floor. “Take him out,” he said. “You know where to put him.”
“Out by the water gate,” the other man replied, and Kapelo nodded. Lugros shrugged, then bent and picked up the body, heaving it up easily and slinging it over one shoulder. Then he followed the other man out and down the hall, deeper into the tavern.
* * *
Joss stared down through the chinks in the floor, mesmerized, watching his brother’s silken hair bounce as the big man carried him away. ‘Out the water gate?’ he thought in horror. If they were taking Dario out a water gate, that must mean they were going to dump his body somewhere out to sea. He sat up, looking frantically around the loft, wanting to move, to run. But there was no way, no way for him to get out, get around the tavern and down to the water, find a boat and follow. There just wasn’t time. And even if he could, he still wouldn’t be able to get to Dario. Even if he could find the spot after the big man dumped the—Dario’s—body… Joss choked and held his breath, once again smothering the wail of grief that threatened to escape. He didn’t even dare try to climb out of the tavern loft for fear of making more noise. He’d have to stay here until that other man left, that awful man, Kapelo. He shook his head, never noticing the tears that scattered away as he settled back down to watch and wait.
* * *
“Aaaaaaah!” The scream came ragged as a saw’s edge from the boy’s throat. Lugros looked on, expressionless, as the scream trailed off into convulsive sobs, watching as Akhreio stepped back. It hadn’t taken long for Kapelo’s right hand man to reduce the young tough to a cowering wreck.
“Who are you working for?” Akhreio’s voice was as cold and hard as the stone walls of the cave they stood in, and he waited in stony patience for a reply. But the pause stretched out too long, and he reached out and did something that made the boy gag on a breath.
“No-one!” The answer was strangled, frantic. “Nobody, I swear! I work—” again the gag and retch, followed by a ragged breath, “I work for Kapelo, nobody else, I swear, I swear!”
The lantern light sheened over the oily pain-sweat on the boy’s face, and highlighted the strange color of the man’s eyes—an odd, dull yellow like old urine. Piss-eye, that’s what the red-haired man called him. In his mind only, of course; never out loud; that would be more than his life was worth. Get him a hissed warning in some night-blind alley and a sharp knife in the back, it would. Lugros saw the peculiar fixed intensity in those yellow eyes and suppressed a shudder. When Piss-eye got that look… The man enjoyed his work too much. Even Kapelo knew there was something wrong with Akhreio; the reason for Lugros’ presence in the cold stone chamber. He was there to witness and, if necessary, to curb the man’s enthusiasm for his task. Lugros didn’t like what was being done to the boy, but he understood the need to find out who had tipped off the Grays. Just—if it hadn’t been the boy…
Akhreio had seen him shudder; of course he had. The man cast a mocking glance over his shoulder and smirked. “You’re too squeamish, Lugros. What, are you a woman?” Lugros caught his breath and his temper, and held himself back from wanting to strangle the other man. There wasn’t much to choose between them in size; an inch or so in height, perhaps, and maybe a few pounds in weight. But the red-haired man knew he was no match for Akhreio. His muscle was from hauling crates and barrels, while the other’s—he well knew Piss-eye’s reputation as a fighter, and made sure to keep well away from those long, lean hands. Akhreio laughed softly and ignored him, going back to his task. Those long fingers did something that made the boy shriek, and the man laughed again as he bent to whisper into the boy’s ear.
Lugros’ face twisted in sick disgust, but he swallowed down his gorge and settled in to wait.
* * *
Joss lay in the loft, staring down through the cracks to the room below, his brain in a strange disconnection. His thoughts somehow raced, and yet seemed frozen; trying to fathom what had happened, what it all meant and what it was going to mean. Trying to think what he was going to do next, what he was going to tell Jemmy. What he was going to tell Amma. Gods, what was she going to do now? His father’s death a year ago had nearly crushed her. It was only the knowledge that her three sons needed her that had kept her going. What was this going to do to her? Uncle Yuuto did what he could, but he had his own family to look after. What was he going to do, himself? He was the only one who knew, the only one who had seen what had happened. He couldn’t just let it go. Couldn’t just let Dario be dead, and not do anything!
Down below, the hard-voiced man just sat there. Back to the fire, staring into the empty room. He barely moved, just every once in a while picked up his mug and sipped from it. He got up once to poke the fire, stirring the ashes into a shower of sparks and shifting the last logs to burn down for the night. Then he went and refilled his mug and sat back down, back to staring and sipping and doing nothing.
Joss couldn’t figure it. What could he be thinking, just sitting there doing nothing when he’d just had a man killed right there in front of him? How could he be like that, just say the words and watch it happen without any feelings? Who was he, that people could just do what he said like that? It didn’t make any sense.
One thing Joss knew, he wasn’t going to just let it be. He wasn’t going to let that man do that to his brother and not pay for it. ‘“Pay him what he’s owed,” yeah,’ Joss thought, and an anger started burning in him, like a coal in his chest. ‘I’ll pay you what you’re owed, too, just see if I don’t!’
He lay there on the floor of the loft, looking down on the man, and a plan began to form in his head.
* * *
An hour and more passed before Lugros came back to the dimly lit taproom, leaving the yellow-eyed man to clean up in that small, cold room. At Kapelo’s inquiring glance Lugros merely shrugged and shook his head. Kapelo’s response was a mere twitch of the shoulder and what was for him a heavy sigh. “Well, there’s always tomorrow.” He picked up the mug and took a sip, savoring the mouthful before swallowing it. “I trust the damage wasn’t too severe?”
Lugros grunted, turning off at the bar and pouring himself a drink, figuring he’d earned it. He took it down hard and fast, then sucked air between his teeth, frowning. He refilled his cup before answering, his face turned away from Kapelo. “You know Akhreio likes what he does.”
“You don’t approve.” He set the mug down, then pushed it toward the other man.
Lugros turned to Kapelo, then crossed to the table and picked up the empty mug. “Not my place to approve or disapprove,” he said. He went back to the bar and poured another round, then brought it back to Kapelo. “Has to be done.” He set the mug down and stepped back.
The word hung there, waiting, the pause growing longer. Then Lugros took a harsh breath and made a sharp gesture of negation. “What if it wasn’t him?”
The lantern light caught on that grimacing smile as Kapelo lifted the mug to his lips. “Then a warning will have been given.” The cup gave a hollow echo to his words, and a strange emphasis of cold amusement. “There are plenty of young bravos looking for quick coin and an excuse to swagger.”
There was nothing to say to that. Lugros shrugged and drained his mug, then set it down on the bar. “I’ll be in to clean up in the morning.” Kapelo lifted his mug without looking up, and Lugros went out into the night.
* * *
It wasn’t much longer before the yellow-eyed man came back out to the taproom. Kapelo nodded toward the bar, and the man turned aside to fill up a cup without a word. The firelight caught the sheen of sweat on the man’s face as he moved, and the fever-gleam in his eyes, and Kapelo’s face twisted a moment in distaste. He knew what causing pain did for the man, but that was what made him an efficient enforcer. One didn’t discard a useful tool simply because it was dirty; just kept a firm grip on it so it did not turn in one’s hand. “All secure?”
The man took down the liquor in several long swallows, then looked back at Kapelo with a satisfied smirk. “Aye.” The man’s voice was hoarse from the liquor and his exertions, and he blew out his breath in a soundless laugh. He set the mug down on the bar and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then spread his long fingers, looking at them in the firelight.
Kapelo eyed him for a moment, then set down his own mug. “Tomorrow, then,” he said, and at the note of dismissal Akhreio nodded and left.
* * *
Joss lay motionless, watching the men below. Watched as first one, then the other drank, said their say to the tavern keeper, and left. After a while the man set down his empty mug, rose, and barred the door. He came back and banked the fire, took his mug to the bar, picked up the lantern and headed back into the depths of the tavern. Joss waited; waited a long time, but the man didn’t return. Finally, he got up from where he lay, moved back and climbed the crates as quietly as he could, wormed his way back through the crevice and paused under the eaves of the roof.
The lesser moon had long since passed beyond the Wall, and the darkness was broken only by the last reflections on the sea. Joss peered across the road, but the balcony where Jemmy waited was hidden in shadow. What was he going to tell his brother? Joss made his way across the roof and down to the street, more slowly than his wont; his muscles had gone stiff and shivery from lying still for so long.
* * *