Aren reached up, squinting a little as the last of the day’s bright sunlight hit his eyes. He took a dry shirt from the line, grumbling to himself as he folded it and placed it in the half-filled basket on the ground. As far as he was concerned, this was girl’s work. Whoever heard of a boy doing laundry? Then he thought of what he would be doing if Sian hadn’t agreed to let him stay here. He would be cold, filthy and hungry, and wondering if he would find a dry place to sleep for the night. Then there was Kerith, his younger sister, who would probably be dead from fever, or starvation by now. At least here, they both had clean, warm clothing, and a bowl of broth to warm their bellies each night before they went to bed. He had to swallow his pride and do this for Kerith’s sake.
“Well, well,” a familiar voice made him jump as he reached for the next shirt. “Isn’t this nice? So, what’s next Aren, my friend? Down on your knees to scrub the floor? Or maybe, if you’re very good, you’ll get to clean the privvy.”
Aren groaned inwardly. This was all he needed.
“Jal!” he turned to greet his friend, forcing a smile. “This is a surprise!”
He had last seen Jal on the night old Simon had told him to bring Kerith to Sian’s house. Then, Jal had been as filthy and ragged as he and Kerith, but Aren could see that his friend’s circumstances had also changed for the better. Jal’s hair was no longer matted and long, and crawling with lice, but had been washed and cut, and now shone like raw black silk in the dying sunlight. His face was clean, his complexion healthy and the hollows under his eyes and cheekbones were gone. Perhaps the biggest shock was the way Jal was dressed. Aren had been pleased enough with the warm woollen clothing Sian had given him, but his friend looked like a prince in comparison. Jal’s tunic and breeches were of a rich, soft fabric that reminded Aren of a dress his mother used to keep for special occasions. Tears welled in his eyes as an image of his mother, wearing that dress, danced into his mind and he blinked hard, looking down at the ground so Jal wouldn’t see.
As he fought the tears, moving a stone around with the toe of his boot as though that were his real reason for looking at the ground, he heard the shutter open behind him and turned to find Sian looking out, her expression unusually stern.
“Aren!” she called. “Come inside, and bring those clothes. There is much work to be done before supper.”
“Go on then Aren,” Jal grinned, laughing as Aren’s face reddened. “Do as the nice lady says. You don’t want to have to do without supper do you?”
“It’s not like that!” Aren snapped, folding his arms and staying put. “Sian never makes us do without.”
“She makes you work for your supper though doesn’t she? You have to earn every bowl of broth and crust of bread you get. Not like me.”
“So what do you have to do for yours?” Aren asked, naturally suspicious; he had learned quickly on the streets that nothing came without its price. He was also puzzled. When he had asked Jal to come with him to Sian’s house, his friend had been adamant that there was no way he would give up his freedom on the streets for the sake of a place to stay. So what had changed his mind?
“Nothing much really,” Jal shrugged casually, although Aren saw a gleam of self-satisfaction in his friend’s eyes. “I just run a few errands here and there. I get paid too, in coin, and I can come and go as I please. Why don’t you come back with me? They’ll let you stay if I tell them you’re a friend of mine. Just think, no more of this skivvying lark.”
“What about Kerith?” Aren asked doubtfully. “Will they let her come too?”
“It’s no place for girls,” Jal shook his head regretfully, “but you could always leave her here.”
It was Aren’s turn to shake his head, his expression implacable.
“We ran away so that we didn’t have to be split up,” he said, a shadow darkening his blue eyes momentarily as another painful memory surfaced and was banished. “So I’m not going to leave her now that we have a safe place to stay together.”
“I know, but this is different,” Jal argued. “Your two aunts were going to take each of you to opposite ends of the duchy. I only want to take you to another part of the city. If you come and stay with me you can visit Kerith every day. You can even bring her presents with the money you earn.”
“No,” Aren said firmly. “I won’t leave her. I promised her that we’d stay together and that’s what we’re going to do. Staying with Sian isn’t all that bad.”
“Suit yourself,” Jal shrugged as though he didn’t care either way, although Aren noted the glimmer of disappointment in his friend’s dark eyes. “If you change your mind I’ll be around.”
Aren nodded, although he had no intention of changing his mind. He watched the other boy go, waving just before Jal moved out of sight, then sighed and turned to take the last shirt from the line. It would be nice to earn a little money, to put by for when he and Kerith were older, but not if it meant leaving his younger sister.
He went inside, stopping to place the basket of clothes on the floor, before moving to warm his hands by the fire. Despite the bright sunlight, it had been cold outside. Sian’s house was quite homely really, he mused as he looked around. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was sparsely furnished. A well-scrubbed, solid old table and benches took up most of one wall, and a big old fireplace occupied most of the other. Over the fire hung a large dented pot, full of simmering broth. The rug which covered much of the floor was patterned, and had probably once been full of rich colour. Now, however, it was faded, and was beginning to wear thin in places. The house was far from being opulent, but in Aren’s mind it was a paradise compared to the meagre shelter offered by the underside of Dargon’s market stalls. Earning his keep wasn’t all that bad either, he supposed. In fact, if he was honest with himself, it was no wors e than the chores he used to have to do for his mother and father.
A noise made Aren turn to see that Sian had entered the room. He noted her expression of annoyance with a small sigh of dismay.
“I’d like to speak with you, Aren,” she said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come straight in when you called,” he offered hopefully, “but I haven’t seen Jal in a long while.”
“Jal is the reason I wish to speak with you,” Sian said quietly. “I’m sorry, Aren, but I don’t want you to associate with that boy any more.”
“But he’s my friend!” he cried, outrage colouring his cheeks scarlet. “My best friend! I know he lives on the streets, but so did I — Kerith too — and if it hadn’t been for Jal we would have both starved long before we came here.”
Sian sighed heavily, stepping forward to put her hands on Aren’s shoulders. “Maybe so,” she reasoned, her expression a little less stern, “and his living on the streets has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t want him coming here. If that were his only fault, I would welcome him gladly.”
“Then what’s wrong with him?” Aren shrugged off her hands, glaring up at her as he moved back towards the table. Sian met his angry stare with one of calm determination.
“What’s wrong with him is the company he keeps,” she said. “I have seen him around Dargon with certain people. People you would not wish to meet, believe me.”
“What people?” Aren was confused. The only people he had ever seen Jal with were other street children, and Sian had already said that she didn’t object to the fact that he lived on the streets.
“Bad people,” Sian said grimly. “People whose notice I don’t wish to gain. People whose deeds would give you nightmares.”
“You’re wrong!” he argued hotly, fighting the urge to stamp his foot.” Jal looked after Kerith and me when we first took to the streets. He wouldn’t do anything worse than steal his next meal.”
“Perhaps not intentionally,” Sian agreed, “but as long as he spends his time with Dargon’s sourest dregs, he is not welcome here. And while you are under my care, you are not to associate with him. Is that clear, Aren?”
Aren glowered back at her, refusing to answer. Why should he stop seeing his friend just because *she* said so? She wasn’t his mother. She wasn’t even a relative. What made her think that she could order him around like this just because she let him stay here? He ought to tell her what she could do with her house and her rules. He ought to take Kerith and go back to the streets. Jal was right: when you left the streets you left your freedom too.
The only trouble was that living on the streets had almost killed his sister. If he took her back there, it wouldn’t be long before she was in the same state again and it would be his fault. He had to stay, for Kerith’s sake, but he wouldn’t stop seeing Jal, no matter what Sian said.
“I said, is that clear Aren?” Sian repeated.
“Yes,” he lied sullenly.
“Then you may wash your hands and cut the bread for supper.”
Sian watched him slouch across the room to the washbowl, then shook her head with a sad half-smile as she took an axe from the corner by the door and went outside. She approached the woodpile and began to work, swinging the axe with practised ease as she let her thoughts focus on Aren. She felt badly about having to forbid him to see his friend, but what else could she have done? She had seen Jal in the market a few days earlier, and she had recognised his associates. They were men her father had once pointed out as employees of a man called Liriss, of whom she had heard rumoured all manner of unwholesome deeds. If she allowed Jal to come to her house, then people would think that she, too, was involved with Liriss. Some of her neighbours were disgruntled enough with the fact that she had opened her doors to street children, and sh e could imagine their reaction if they thought she was mixed up with the less wholesome inhabitants of Dargon. Worse than that was the fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention to her sanctuary. One of her strongest motives behind taking in homeless children was to keep them from people who might take advantage of their situation — people like Liriss.
“How much wood do you need?” A woman’s voice startled her, interrupting her swing so that the axe, instead of cleaving another log, became embedded in the dirt at her feet. She looked up angrily, then smiled weakly as she recognised her cousin Erin.
“What?” she asked, then looked down at the untidy pile of firewood, grinning ruefully when she saw how much she had cut. “Oh, I see what you mean. I’m afraid I got a little carried away. Oh well, it will save me a job tomorrow.”
“So what is taking up so much of your mind that you don’t know how much wood to cut?” Erin asked, raising an eyebrow.
“A slight problem with one of the children, nothing much.” She shrugged casually, unwilling to reveal her fears, knowing that she would get little sympathy.
Erin shook her dark head with a grimace, letting out a heavy, exaggerated sigh. “I don’t know why you bother with those wretches,” she said with a look of contempt. “I told you at the start that they’d bring you nothing but trouble. Look at you! You’re young, and pretty — well you would be if you took a little more care of yourself. Look at your clothes! My mother’s servants are better dressed than you are, and as for your hands, well, they’re rougher than any housemaid’s. You should be looking for a husband instead of playing nursemaid to these beggar-brats!”
“They are *not* brats!” Sian felt the rush of blood to her cheeks at her cousin’s insult, and she tightened her grip on the axe-handle in her struggle to remain calm. “They’re children. Children who have nowhere else to turn.”
“They’re trouble,” Erin continued, ignoring the flush of annoyance spreading across Sian’s cheeks. “They’re eating away at the money your father left you. Money that would make a handsome dowry.”
Sian threw down the axe and pushed a lock of chestnut hair from eyes that flashed anger. “I don’t need a dowry!” she cried. “And I don’t need a husband. These children however, need a safe place to stay.”
“So why do you have to be the one to give it to them?” Erin asked doggedly.
“Because I know how they feel. You seem to forget that I was once like them, until Mother and Father took me in and raised me as their own. They gave me a home, and their love, and a life that wasn’t full of pain. If they were here today, they would be overjoyed to know that I was able to pass on their gift of a home and love to others.”
Erin sighed affectedly and placed a gloved hand on Sian’s shoulder, treating her cousin to a look of pained sufferance.
“But my dear,” she wheedled, “you don’t seem to realise how all this is affecting your family. Mother is beside herself with grief at the thought of her dear niece wasting herself — and her money — on these wretches. Not to mention the acute embarrassment we all feel each day when some person or other asks about your strange situation.”
“Strange?” Sian had never heard it referred to as strange before: foolhardy maybe, even dangerous, but never strange.
“Yes, strange,” her cousin continued primly. “Do you not agree that it is strange for a young woman, unwedded, to take it upon herself to care for any waif that happens to turn up at her door? Perhaps a married woman, like your mother, unable to have children of her own, would be commended for taking one or two orphans into her care. But for a single woman to ruin her prospects of a good marriage by becoming mother to a whole horde of beggar-brats is beyond comprehension. When I think of all the time and money you have wasted it makes me want to weep, mother too.”
“The only thing that makes you and your precious mother want to weep is the fact that Father left all his money to me!” Sian raged, unable to hold her temper any longer. “It consumes you both that he left everything to some *beggar-brat* he took in off the streets!”
“Why Sian Allyn! Of all the ungrateful …” Erin spluttered. “How can you stand there and say such things after all my poor mother did for you? After your father’s death, she spent bells and bells at your side, comforting you, and all you can do now is blacken her name!”
“You mean she sat around like a queen, having me rush around after her like some skivvy, until she found out she wasn’t getting anything from Father’s estate!” Sian ground out, no longer caring what her haughty cousin thought of her. She bent to pick up an armful of kindling, and before Erin could speak again she said, “Now if you don’t mind I have to give the children their supper — good evening cousin.” Then she turned and marched into the house, slamming the door behind her.
By morning, Aren had almost forgotten his resentment towards Sian, and it seemed to him that she too had put her anger aside, because she was all smiles and singing as she went about her work. She even sang as she raked out the dead ashes from the hearth, a task she had confessed to disliking above all others. As he approached her for his breakfast of fresh warm bread and cheese, she ruffled his short sandy curls and smiled, a smile that he shyly returned before taking his plate over to the table.
There were three other children staying at Sian’s house besides himself and Kerith, and as each one came down to breakfast Sian gave them all the same smiling greeting. Aren nodded in reply to their good-mornings as he chewed his food, while each took their place at the table. Aren, at fourteen years, was the oldest, and Kerith, at six, the youngest, as well as the only girl. He watched her as she ate, nibbling at the bread and cheese as though she were trying to make it last all day, and he bit his lip as he remembered how she would do exactly that with every stale crust he could find for her. She still wasn’t fully well: her colour was better and her smile had returned, but she was still waif-thin and the dark shadows were not quite gone from beneath her blue eyes.
He reluctantly tore his gaze from his sister, but not before he had given her a reassuring wink.
“I said, will you please pass the water jug?” Finn, a wiry, freckle-faced boy repeated with forced patience.
“Sorry,” Aren mumbled, passing him the jug. “I was elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere?” the younger boy shook his head with a laugh, his coppery hair falling forward over mischief-laden hazel eyes. “Off with the fairies more like!”
Aren laughed and gave Finn a playful punch on the arm, which the other boy returned, leading to a friendly tussle, which Sian ended by pulling them apart and giving each a light-hearted tap on the ear.
“I can see that you two need to find something better to do with your time,” she said sternly, although her eyes were merry. “So you, Finn, can collect and wash the breakfast plates, and you, Aren, can go to the market and bring me back some flour, or there’ll be no fresh bread tomorrow.”
At this Finn groaned, and Aren couldn’t help smirking at his own good fortune. Now it was someone else’s turn for drudgery, while he was afforded the trust of being sent to the market. It suddenly seemed that things weren’t as unfair as he had first thought: at least Sian made sure everyone had their share of chores they liked, as well as those they didn’t. Folding laundry didn’t seem all that bad when balanced against a trip to the market.
He went upstairs to put on his boots and the heavy woollen cloak Sian had given him, and when he returned he found her singing again as she braided Kerith’s long sandy hair.
“Here,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her apron with one hand, while she held onto the braid with the other. “There’s a Round, and take the bag hanging on the back of the door. Bring a bag of flour, a turnip and some carrots. Someone left us a brace of rabbits on the doorstep this morning, so they’ll help make a nice stew.”
Aren took the coin, unable to hide a smile of pride at being trusted. He kissed Kerith, earning himself a smile so bright it stole his breath, and warmed him in a way that no fire ever could. It had been a long time since he had seen her so happy, and he grudgingly admitted to himself that it was mainly thanks to Sian. Then he turned, grabbed the bag and went out the door, his step light and quick.
The market felt different somehow. All the usual stalls were there, and it was as busy as ever, with people from every part of the city pushing past each other in their hurry to get what they needed, but it was still different. Aren decided that it must be his change of circumstances. In the days before he and Kerith had gone to Sian’s house, they would spend most of their time at the market. During the day they would beg, hoping that some kind-hearted stranger would give them a few Bits so that they might eat, or they would hang around the bread and fruit stalls to scavenge bits of food considered unfit for sale. At night, when all else failed, they would make their bed in the dirt beneath the stalls. Now he had a Round in his pocket, and the underside of the stalls were no longer his bed.
The people around him treated him differently too. When he and Kerith lived on the streets, most of them would look at his ragged clothes and dirty skin with disgust — occasionally it would be pity, but mostly disgust — before continuing on their way. Now they mostly ignored him, or gave him a quick nod and a smile as they passed, but no one looked at him as though he was something unsavoury on the bottom of their shoe. He had hated begging, and the first time he had held out his hand he had felt shame, but the shame had soon faded to be replaced with a kind of numb acceptance of the need to survive. Now he felt no shame. He had done the only thing he could to keep himself and Kerith alive, and he would do it again if the need arose.
He soon found a stall which sold good, fresh, vegetables and fruit. It was a stall he had visited many times over the six months he and Kerith had been on the streets. The stallholder, a stout, grizzled man with kind brown eyes, had sometimes beckoned him over and given him wrinkled or bruised apples. As Aren approached the stall, the man seemed to recognise him, and frowned, as though puzzled by something. Then he shrugged and smiled, shaking his head as if he was dismissing an idea.
“What can I get you, young fellow?” he asked cheerfully.
Aren picked up the largest turnip he could see and held it up in both hands, turning it over as he checked to make sure it was good. Then he held it out to the stallholder.
“And I’ll have six of your nicest carrots,” he said proudly, holding out the roughly woven bag Sian had given him.
The man took the bag and placed the turnip inside, then began counting out the carrots. Aren fumbled in his pocket for the Round. He pulled it out and handed it to the stallholder in exchange for the goods, unable to suppress a grin. For every spoiled apple he had taken from this man he had given a little of his pride. He knew the man had meant only kindness, but it had still made him feel worthless. Now he could look the man in the eye as he gave his thanks and received his change. Now he felt warm inside instead of wretched.
In less than a bell, he had bought everything Sian had asked for, and had a few Bits left over. As he passed a pie-stall, the aroma of meat and spices made his mouth water, and he was sorely tempted to buy a small pie to eat on his way back to Sian’s house, but he resisted. Sian had trusted him with the money, and he would take all the change back with him to repay that trust. Besides, he had eaten more for breakfast than he would have had in several days on the streets. He wasn’t really hungry — just tempted by the smell. He turned away from the stall and began to walk in the direction of Sian’s house, stopping every now and then when something caught his eye.
He was watching a juggler, mesmerised by the ease and speed in which the colourfully dressed man was throwing and catching five brightly painted wooden batons, when he caught sight of a familiar figure strolling past the gathered crowd. For a moment he only stared as he wondered whether or not he should call out to Jal. Sian had forbidden him to see his friend, and whether he liked it or not he sensed that she would not have lied to him about Jal’s associates. He didn’t want to anger Sian and jeopardise his and Kerith’s new life. Then again, Jal *was* his friend, and even if he was mixed up with a bad lot, it didn’t mean that he, too, was bad. Jal had helped him when no one else would, shown him where to find food and helped him gain acceptance with the other street children. He couldn’t just cut him off now that he no longer needed his help.
“Jal!” he called, standing on tiptoe and waving above the crowd to catch the other boy’s attention. “Jal! Over here!”
Jal saw him and grinned, raising a hand in greeting as he hurried to where Aren was standing.
“What’s this? Has the lady slaver let you out?” he teased, laughing as Aren’s cheeks reddened almost immediately.
“She’s not that bad, I told you,” Aren retorted. “In fact you’d like her once you got to know her.”
“Just as I’d get to like pig-slop once I’d eaten enough of it?” Jal laughed again, although there was a harshness to the laughter, the reason for which Aren knew only too well. They had both eaten more than their fair share of pig-slop when things were at their worst, and Aren knew that it was a taste to be endured rather than acquired.
“So what are you up to?” Jal asked, eyeing the packages Aren carried.
“Just fetching a few things for Sian,” Aren shrugged, pointedly ignoring Jal’s grimace.
“So, do you fancy a walk? Tag along with me while I run an errand?”
Aren looked doubtful. He had already spent a good while watching the juggler and wandering around the stalls, so added to the time he had spent shopping he guessed that he had been out for a couple of bells already. Sian would already be wondering where he was, and he supposed he should get back before she started to worry.
“I don’t know,” he began, “I should really be taking this lot back.”
“Oh come on!” Jal urged. “It’ll only take a little while, and it will give you a chance to see what your life would be like if you came with me. Come on, we’ll find somewhere to hide your packages so you won’t have to carry them around.”
Aren chewed his lip. It wouldn’t do any harm for just a little while, he supposed, and he could always tell Sian he had lost track of time while watching the entertainers. Jal looked so eager and earnest that he found it hard to say no.
“All right,” he grinned at last, “but just for a little while, mind. Sian’ll have my eyeballs for earrings if I’m gone all day.”
“We’ll be back before you know it, I promise,” Jal agreed solemnly. “Now come on, let’s find somewhere to hide your things.”
They hid Aren’s purchases in Spirit’s Haven’s stables, behind a stack of hay bales in a dark corner. Aren felt uneasy in the stables: he and Kerith had slept there several times, sneaking in before the doors were locked and hiding themselves in that same corner until morning. Three sennights ago he would have been overjoyed to find himself there, knowing that it would be one night they wouldn’t have to worry about the cold and rain. Now it only brought back memories of their suffering.
“Come on,” he urged Jal, who was busy making sure the packages could not be seen from the door. “I have to get back soon.”
“All right!” Jal laughed. “Didn’t realise you were so eager to see what I do.”
“I’m not,” Aren replied, although he knew that wasn’t entirely true. He *was* curious to see what Jal did, if only to be able to tell Sian that she was wrong about his friend. He was also curious to see how Jal could afford such fine clothes from running errands.
They left the stable and Jal led him through the city towards the docks. As they walked further and further away from the market and Sian’s house on Murson Street, Aren began to grow more and more uneasy. There was no way he would be able to get back in time to stop Sian worrying, yet if he turned back now his friend would scorn him. He had no choice but to follow.
“Where are we going?” he asked as Jal turned along Tanner Street.
“Not much farther,” his friend replied, “I just have a small package to deliver to a man down here and then we can get back.”
“And how much will you get paid for this?”
“Depends on how much the package is worth,” Jal shrugged, “Anything from a couple of Bits to a Round, maybe more if this fellow’s generous enough to give me a tip.”
“And how many errands do you have to run in a day?”
“This is my second and last for today,” Jal answered, frowning at the question. “Why do you want to know so much?”
“About the fact that you can afford such finery on a couple of Rounds a day.”
“Oh that,” Jal grinned, pausing to rummage under his cloak. After a moment he produced a heavy gold ladies bangle, which glittered in the weak autumnal sun as he held it up before Aren’s astonished eyes.
“Where did you get that?” Aren wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.
“Let’s just say that I acquired it,” came the smug reply.
“You stole it?” Aren was aghast. “When? At the market? How could you be so foolish? What if you’d got caught? What if …”
“Hey! Slow down!” Jal laughed, holding up his arms as if to ward off a blow. “First of all I didn’t steal it at the market. I wouldn’t risk attracting such attention to myself.”
“So where did you get it?” Aren was unconvinced.
“When we met I had just finished an errand to a jeweller,” Jal explained. “He had a box of knick-knacks on a shelf behind the counter, probably things he was going to melt down and make new, and when he went into the back to get me my tip I took advantage of the opportunity, that’s all. He probably didn’t even know what was in the box.”
“It’s still stealing!” Aren refused to be swayed. In all his time on the streets he had never resorted to stealing things of worth. Of course, there had been times when he had taken food from the market when a stall-holder’s back was turned, and he had once taken a cloak from a washing line for Kerith, but that was out of desperation. This was different: Jal obviously didn’t need to steal anything anymore.
“Stop looking at me as though I’d just crawled out of a cesspool!” Jal snapped, thrusting the bangle back into his clothing. “I didn’t set out to steal, I never do, but if he was stupid enough to leave a box of gold unattended then he deserved to lose a little. It’s not as though I took something that someone really needed. I’d never do that.”
“So what are you going to do with it?” Aren saw that it would be futile to argue the matter further. “You can’t exactly spend a bangle.”
“I know some people who will pay handsomely for such a trinket,” Jal replied casually. “People who won’t be too interested in where it came from.”
Aren remained silent. Jal was probably talking about the people Sian had spoken of the previous night. It hurt him to know that he had been so wrong about his friend, more than he had thought possible. Jal had been so good to him, how could he have changed so much in a few sennights?
“I think I’d better go,” he said after several awkward moments.
“Suit yourself,” Jal retorted sullenly. “It’s your loss.”
“Yes,” Aren nodded sadly. “I think it probably is.”
He turned and walked away, his steps as heavy as his heart. He still couldn’t believe that he had been so wrong about his best friend. He and Kerith had spent the best part of six months with Jal, and in all that time he had never seen the other boy do anything worse than steal enough food to keep starvation at bay. Yet here he was, stealing for gain — for excitement even. It didn’t make sense. Perhaps it was the influence of his new friends; Aren didn’t know. What he did know was that he couldn’t be Jal’s friend anymore, and that hurt more than anything.
By the time he got back to the market, after retrieving his goods from Spirit’s Haven — which had taken much longer than he would have wished, because May, the owner, had caught him and asked lots of questions before she was satisfied that the goods were really his — people were beginning to pack up their stalls, and his heart sank ever further when he realised how long he had been gone. Sian was going to be angry with him, and he didn’t know if he could face that on top of everything else. He had to, he knew that, but thoughts of the reception he would get when he walked through the door would make the rest of his walk home even more miserable. As it was, he didn’t have to wait that long to find out how Sian would react to his lateness, because as he walked between the half-empty stalls she appeared before him, her expression causing him to bite his lip and hang his head.
“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been, Aren Greythorn?” she asked angrily as she strode towards him. “What have you been doing all this time?”
“I … I went for a walk,” he gulped.
“With that friend of yours I’ll wager!” she snapped, snatching the bag of flour from him with one hand and grasping the edge of his cloak with the other. When he didn’t deny her accusation she continued. “I meant what I said Aren. I will not have my house brought into disrepute, for you or anyone.”
“I’m sorry. I …” Aren began, but Sian was in no mood to listen.
“I don’t care! Now you have two choices. You can either come with me now and forget about your friend, or you can turn around and never set foot through my door again. Which is it to be?”
Aren felt a stab of resentment. He had been about to tell her that his decision had already been made, that he had already turned his back on Jal, but she hadn’t let him finish. Now she would just think he was making it up to get himself out of trouble, so why should he even attempt to explain? He was tempted to walk away. Kerith was happy enough with Sian — yes, she would miss him, but she would be well cared-for and she would forget him through time — but where would he go? To Jal? No, he couldn’t do that: his innate sense of honour would not allow him to turn a blind eye to Jal’s stealing. Nor could he work for people who encouraged wrongdoing. He could always go back to the streets; he could survive well enough without Kerith to worry about. The trouble was that he didn’t want to survive. He wanted to live.
He was about to reply when he became aware of a commotion in the street beyond the next stall, and he turned, startled by the sudden noise. A man was holding Jal by the hood of his cloak and shouting.
“You little brigand! I know it was you! Now give it back before I turn you in to the guard!”
Aren hadn’t seen the man before, but he guessed it to be the jeweller, either that or Jal had stolen again. As he watched, Jal slipped the clasp on his cloak and ran down the street. The man chased, still shouting, his language becoming more and more vulgar. Aren saw a cart and horses moving towards them from the opposite end of the street. He called out a warning, but Jal didn’t hear. He was looking back at the jeweller as he ran, dodging this way and that to avoid the man’s attempts to grab him. He was still looking behind him when he collided with one of the horses, and Aren closed his eyes and put his hands to his ears to try to block out the agonised scream as his friend was trampled. The scream ended abruptly, and ignoring Sian’s cry, Aren dropped the bag with the carrots and the turnip and ran as fast as he could towards the cart and the gathering crowd. As he approached he heard the jeweller cry out in triumph.
“I knew it! See! I knew the little bastard had it!”
Then another voice, one Aren didn’t recognise. “Well the poor little bugger won’t be stealing nothing else. His neck’s broke.”
Aren stopped on the edge of the crowd. Part of him didn’t believe that his friend was dead and wanted to push through to find Jal sitting there, rubbing his bruises and grinning his grin. Another part, which had seen his mother lying so still and cold after the fever, didn’t want to see. He began to cry. Tears streamed down his face, and the tears turned to loud, choking sobs that sent him to his knees in the dirt, his arms wrapped around his body as if to try to comfort himself. Then he felt other arms around him and he turned his head to find Sian kneeling beside him, her own eyes moist.
“He … was … my … best … friend!” he sobbed. “He … wasn’t bad. He … just made … a mistake!”
“I know,” Sian soothed, stroking his hair. “I know.”
“You hated him!” he accused angrily, struggling against her, but she held him fast.
“No, I didn’t hate him,” she sighed. “I would have helped him if I could, but he was already lost. The people he was with would not have let him go. If he hadn’t been caught today it would have been some other time, either that or he would have crossed his masters and paid with his life. I only forbade you from seeing him because I didn’t want you to be lost too. One child’s death through Liriss and his fiends is one too many.”
Aren knew she was right. Hadn’t he also turned his back on Jal because he could see that his friend was beyond help?
“Come,” Sian said softly, rising to her feet and pulling him with her. “Kerith is waiting for you. She will be worried. Let’s go home.”
Home? Aren had not thought of Sian’s house as home. In fact it had been a long time since he had thought of anywhere as home. He thought of the house on Murson Street, with its warmth and its sounds of laughter, singing, and squabbling. He thought of Kerith waiting for him there, and he felt a sudden rush of longing. Yes, it was time to go home.