Jem shifted slightly, moving his shoulders along the wall, so that his relaxed slouch allowed him to watch the man swagger down the street. He had felt the welling shock of hope, when he first glimpsed the man stalking through the crowd. He had thought it was Rauf, but it was not. Jem still hoped Rauf would walk back into his life, like he had that cold winter night five years ago. He knew Rauf was two years dead, but he hoped. Rauf could have fooled him, like he had fooled all his marks. The man who had caught Jem’s eye was too brash, too arrogant to be the man who caused him to feel a choking sensation whenever he thought of him. Rauf would never have stood out so much, without a really good reason. With a slight sigh he brought his concentration back from his bitter-sweet memories of Rauf, and focused back on the market. He saw that the eyes of the crowd slid over him. No one cared to notice a tattered street boy. Jem loved Dargon, a big city with thousands of shadows for a clever watcher to hide in. He scanned the crowds looking for his fellow shadow boys, who were hunting the market after Jem had agreed to show them how to lift a purse. The noisy, cramped market stalls were a perfect place to practice. He found most of his friends far too easily. He would have to work on their ability to blend in.
Rauf often told Jem that he was glad to have saved him from becoming a shadow boy. He described them as a group of ”incompetent child thieves”. Jem half smiled to himself; Rauf had to explain what ”incompetent” meant the first time he said it. Still, with Rauf’s death Jem found himself a shadow boy nonetheless. He had found Rauf’s description accurate on the whole, but he was determined to become more than an incompetent child thief. He convinced several of his younger brethren to aspire to more too. Still not all shadow boys had agreed with him. The Shadow King watched him warily. Others muttered that he was becoming too old to be a shadow boy. A couple had even started to be openly threatening towards him. Jem did not want to leave whilst his young gang was still vulnerable to being bullied by the more established members of the group. Before Jem had pulled them together, his gang had all been pushed around by the more senior members of the shadow boys.
As Jem’s gaze was drawn back to the man who had caught his eye, he realised that he should have taught Col how to pick a mark before he taught him how to lift a purse. He watched in horror, as he saw Col slide into step behind the man. Jem abandoned his relaxed slouch, standing half ready to run towards Col and half ready to flee the other way. A jubilant gang of sailors jostled each other as they made their way through the market, no doubt intent on spending some of their wages at the end of a voyage. As the sailors walked in front of Jem they blocked his view for a breath’s span of time. He knew that Col had tried a lift as he heard an almost dog like snarl followed by Col’s screech. He hurried towards the sound, and found the man gripping Col by the collar as he twisted his other arm up his back.
”Steal from me would ya!” shouted the man, whose guttural waterfront pronunciation clashed with the smart finery he wore. Col squirmed, but the man only tightened his grip and twisted the arm more, causing Col to swear out loud. Jem saw that other people had begun to form an irregular circle around Col and the man. He knew that he had to act or Col was done for, and it might not be the law that did for him.
Jem shrugged the hood of his sackcloth cape over his head to hide his face as he dashed in. He used his momentum to make up for his scrawny size as he drove his fist into the man’s kidney. The man staggered, but began to recover even as he grabbed hold of Col and spun him around flinging him into the crowd. He turned and ran the other way.
Jem shouldered and shoved his way through the stunned crowd, making for the nearest side street. The people who felt the sharpness of his elbows cursed him, thinking he was just another shadow boy on an errand. He ran from alley to alley, jumping over the piles of rotting rope and dockside detritus that had been dumped there. When he was sure he had lost any pursuit he stopped, and waited for his heart to stop pounding. He looked at the run-down buildings around him, using them to get his bearings before making his way towards Dock Street, their pre-arranged rendezvous should they get separated.
As the excitement wore off he began to feel a dull ache. He pulled up his threadbare sleeve, and inspected his grimy forearm. It hurt but nothing was broken. The man he punched had been solid muscle under his finery. Still the weight of the man’s purse made the pain worth it. That and the satisfyingly warm glow he got from knowing that he had been able to make the lift, even though he had been saving Col. With that thought warming him, and somehow lessening his pain he made his way to meet his friends.
As Jem came round the corner Col’s face split into a huge grin, and he came over to thank him for what he had done. Jem was pleased to see that he had escaped unharmed, except for a sore right arm. Jem pointed out that a sore arm was far less bothersome when you escape and also get the man’s money. He showed off the man’s purse, enjoying the groups impressed gasps. Jem looked around his ill-matched gang; five junior shadow boys, one of whom kept insisting that she should really be called a shadow girl.
Jem wrinkled his brow remembered Rauf saying, ”Always work alone where you can. Never trust others, they’ll get you caught.” It confused him as to why Rauf had taken him under his wing. Jem wondered why he himself had chosen to look after so many youths, but as he looked around he felt a warmth at being a part of something, of belonging.
Jem was worried that his gang was not ready for what he had planned. He looked around, his gaze lingering on Eliza who was half the size of the others in the group. She looked pale and sickly under the grime that covered her face. Jem looked away as her gaze rose to meet his, and he turned his concern to Col instead.
”Col, by all the whores in the Shattered Spear, what made you choose that man as your mark?” Jem was looking at Col who had gone red, and was staring at the tattered hem of his trousers.
”He looked rich!” he said half shy, half defiant.
Jem looked around to make sure that his class was listening.
”He looked mean. You need to look past the purse to who’s carrying it. That man had as many scars as he had years, most were on his forearms, that means knife work, close and nasty, none of your rich man’s friendly fencing. He was walking like he owned the place, true a lot of money walks around like that but not many carry such plain knives along with their finery. He was shouting out, ‘I’ll look you in the eye when I stab you or I’ll stab you in the back and I’d enjoy either’ but you have to pay attention to hear the message.”
Jem looked around and saw five pairs of eyes watching him in rapt silence. He palmed five Bits from the purse he had lifted earlier.
”A memento,” he said, deftly flicking each stunned child a Bit. He was pleased to see that although not everyone caught theirs, they at least got out of the way of the flying metal. In his mind he heard Rauf’s voice telling him, ”you can’t buy friends, but a starving man is no one’s friend until he’s been fed.”
”Right, listen in you lot. Hugo the smuggler has had his last shipment of contraband confiscated.” Jem could not help but smile whilst he said it.
”What again?” asked Eliza.
Jem grinned openly. ”Have any of you seen the new puppet show that is being shown at the Venilek? The Wood Pig and the Woodsman’s Axe?” Jem saw a couple of nods.
”A giant wood pig tangles with a woodsman, everyone laughs especially when the wood pig eats the woodsman’s axe. Well Hugo sees this show and gets a bright idea for his next job. So what does he do?” he asked, looking around for answers.
Eliza shyly suggests, ”Hide the bootleg in meat carcasses?” Jem nodded, smiling.
”A smart man would, sorry or girl. But not Hugo. No, he gets himself a wood pig stuffed in Lederia, orders the naughty stuff hidden in its belly and put on a ship to Dargon.” The children listening began to titter in a not very nefarious way.
Jem struggled to remain serious ”As soon as it docks in the harbour, some guardsman who’s seen the same show checks it and finds the contraband. Off goes Hugo’s money, reputation such as it is and possibly his breathing privileges if he doesn’t get it back.” He began to make a pig like snorting noise, bringing full on laughter from the children surrounding him. ”So we need to get it back from the guardhouse on Commercial Street.” The laughter stopped.
Jem told each of his gang what he needed them to do. Some were excited, most nervous but all accepted his direction without question. Jem felt a sudden sense of unease. He was used to risking his own skin, but suddenly he had five others to watch out for. What if his plan got them all killed?
Jem told his gang to split up for the rest of the day, ready to meet later that night. He knew that there would be fewer guardsmen around at night, and those who were still around would be out on patrol. What he was really worried about were the station cats: Not actual furry cats, but the older guardsmen who would stay in the guardhouse even if Prince Rise’er and his fiery kingdom of Gil-Pa’en manifested outside. His plan needed to take them into account. He had been training his gang for months now. They were all getting the hang of the basics but none of them could describe themselves as roof-toppers, not yet anyway. It took practice to be a good sneak-in thief, stealing into a house through a window in the middle of the night. Jem hoped that the smaller children’s size might be an advantage, which would make up for their inexperience.
Jem chose Eliza for the most difficult part of the plan, whilst he would do the most challenging climbing.
Jem watched Eliza heading off. He gave her a few menes head start before following. He broke into a jog to catch up with her. Jem saw her scrawny hand dart inside her shirt as he ran up behind her.
”Steady Eliza!” he said. ”It’s only me.”
He could see her relax her grip on whatever was under her shirt. Her face, which had been tense and frightened, broke into a tired looking smile as she recognised him.
”You nearly got a new belly button, storming up behind me like that!” she said.
Jem could see that she was fighting to keep her hands from trembling.
”Look, you’ve got the hardest part of tonight’s work and I reckon you could do with a proper feed before then. Here take this.” He held out another Bit. ”Get yourself some warmer clothing.”
There was suspicion in her eyes as she took the extra money. Jem knew charity was a rare occurrence on the street, but he knew a Bit was a Bit. Eliza also had no reason not to trust him. Jem hoped that a real meal or two and some decent clothing would help. Eliza was thin even for a street girl. Jem winked at her, and said his goodbyes again before heading towards the Street of Painters.
Jem grinned as he walked. He knew he would get a warm welcome at Mawdrenas’ house. He had secured a small pouch of purple dye, just the thing to keep a busy artist happy. Jem felt slightly guilty as he reflected that his relationship was not as innocent as Mawdrenas thought. He did enjoy the old man’s company, when he was not complaining about rival artist Iocasee. The guilt came from knowing that Mawdrenas thought he was helping a street child by allowing him to sleep in his hall on infrequent occasions. In reality Jem knew a handful of employers who happily allowed him to sleep in a warm spot in lieu of paying for small services. Jem really favoured Mawdrenas as he gave Jem access to many of the city’s rich and powerful, who often sat for Mawdrenas’ paintings or commissioned works of art from him. Jem had learnt a lot from acting as a lackey for Mawdrenas. What he needed now though was a place away from the other shadow boys and their unwelcome attention. He counted a pouch of dye a small price for a few bells’ safety, especially if he got a meal as well.
Jem’s eyes were busy as he walked. He noted who was careless with their money pouch, who was bragging loudly about their latest business deal and who was watching the same things he was. With a sudden shock he heard a voice right on his shoulder.
”Wot you doin’ here Jem?” the voice was the half rasping, half squeaking voice of a boy on his way to manhood. Jem recognised it instantly as Abner.
Jem turned to face the voice. He hid both his shock at how close Abner managed to get to him without being noticed, and his dislike for the stocky thug.
”Abner, always a pleasure.” Jem slid his right thumb into his waistband casually, placing his hand closer to his knife. He trusted Abner less than he liked him.
”Don’t give me that, I don’t like you and I don’t like the little club you’re trying to build, straight?” Abner sneered whilst staring at Jem’s hand that was casually resting near his knife.
”Don’t like what you do, don’t like who you do it with. Time you moved out. Time you went to play with the big boys, like the big man you pretend to be.” Jem fought the urge to step back, as Abner’s voice got angrier the more he talked.
”I’ll move on when I’m ready. Not everyone sees the younger shadows as lackeys and easy meat for bullying.” Abner lowered his chin a Jem spoke, and pointed a finger at Jem.
”I’m going to make sure you go. The King’s starting to realise you’re getting old, despite your scrawny size. He might not be king for too much longer anyway. Not one of his plans has come off recently. Not even the plans the great Jem has helped the King plan. Soon you’ll be out, on your own, friendless. Be seeing you, Jem.” Abner gave a mocking tilt of his head as he backed off a couple of steps before turning and walking away.
Abner’s threat made Jem feel a strange sense of disquiet, but he could not work out why he was so shaken.
Mawdrenas was as welcoming as Jem could have wanted, once he saw the dye Jem brought. He showed Jem his latest painting, boasting how it would outshine Iocasee’s newest work. He let Jem use his back room to snatch a couple of bells’ sleep.
Jem woke with a start. He was covered in cold, clammy sweat. He had been dreaming of the night when Rauf found him. This time though Rauf ignored him and walked past. Jem shouted, and then screamed after him, but Rauf never looked back. Jem found himself alone. He ran around the streets looking for Rauf, but could not find anyone, let alone the reassuring bulk of Rauf. After Rauf walked past, Dargon had been deserted.
Jem dressed slowly, his fingers shaking. As he left, he shouted his farewells to Mawdrenas, who ignored him, absorbed in a sketch he was doing.
Jem began to feel better once he left the house; the cool night air washed over him ridding him of the echo of fear still left from his dream.
The streets were quiet. As he rounded a corner Jem noticed Cary lounging near an alley entrance; he suspected he was meant to. He tried walking past without acknowledging him, but as he approached Martin walked out of the same alley directly towards him. Both youths were Abner’s flunkies, and Jem felt fear begin its white-hot journey from his stomach to his legs.
Martin walked right up to Jem. ”We need a chat.”
”Fine, but I’m busy right now. We can chat later.” Jem made to walk past, but Martin blocked his way.
”No, we need to chat now. This way.” Martin gestured to the alley.
Jem’s back crawled as he felt Cary slide into step behind him. It was dark in the alley, but Jem could still see as light from the overlooking buildings stole down the narrow expanse. Jem saw Abner sitting on a pile of bricks, dumped up against a wall.
”Welcome big man, to my little kingdom. I know a man such as yourself won’t often venture into such poor surroundings.” Abner stayed seated, but he stretched out his arms as if he were a landed noble demonstrating the extent of his holdings.
”What do you want Abner? I’m busy.” Jem could feel that Martin and Cary were behind him, and it was not a good feeling.
”I know you’ve got plans for tonight but I’m afraid they’ll have to wait. You’ve got a problem. I reckon I know what your problem is.” He looked pleased, like he was happily doing Jem a favour. Jem just stared at him.
”You think you are the king of Shadow Kings. Lording it over all of us. Well tonight I’m challenging ya. So are my boys, aren’t you lads?” Affirmative grunts sounded behind him.
”But since you are king of kings I can’t just race you for a flag; I reckon you’re too good for that. So as you are above all the flag stuff, you are the flag. What we do when we get you is still undecided.”
“Never show off when simply doing the job will do,” flashed into Jem’s head; it was one of Rauf’s sayings. Jem did not wait for any clearer signal. He dived for the gap, past Abner. Jem’s shoulder exploded in pain as Abner slashed with a knife, which he had pulled as soon as Jem had moved. Jem did not slow; he ignored the pain and ran on. He could hear the three chasing after him. Jem pumped his arms and lowered his head as he ran as fast as he could. He ran out of the other end of the alley, onto a cobbled street. The uneven cobbles threatened to trip him. He quickly abandoned the street for another alley. He grabbed onto the corner of a building to help him turn without losing speed. He could hear the heavy footsteps behind him and he tried to run even faster. He had to hurdle piles of rubbish, with each extra effort he felt his energy leaving him. He tried to think of a plan, but fear was making concentrating on anything other than running almost impossible. He could only think of one chance of outrunning Abner. He turned a sharp left and headed for the business district. He could hear his pursuers following him doggedly. Jem felt his legs begin to burn, and his lungs ached. As he ran he tried changing direction down alleys and climbing over walls in an effort to lose Abner and his friends, but nothing worked. Jem’s legs began to feel like red-hot snakes were squeezing them, and his breath was coming out like a drowning man breaking the surface. He almost decided that his only chance was to turn and fight when he saw the lights of Spirits Haven ahead; now he needed some luck.
As he ran gasping towards the inn he saw just what he was looking for; a coach was pulling away from the inn and heading for Red Avenue. Jem dug deep into his flagging reserves and chased the small coach, catching it as it slowed at the corner of Red Avenue. Like all shadow boys, Jem had hitched a ride on rich men’s coaches before. The trick was to cling onto the rear of the coach out of sight of the driver and any footmen, but not to land so heavily that they noticed and checked. Jem launched himself at the back of the coach. He nearly lost his grip as the cut across his shoulder screamed in protest, but he held on. He looking back to make sure that Abner and his friends were not about to drag him off. Despite the pain he was in, he felt relief as he saw Abner stop twenty yards away, breathing hard. He was using both hands to make threats and obscene gestures. Jem used his injured arm to sign a reply, which Rauf had taught him. He could not remember the exact meaning but he remembered Rauf saying that it was not actually possible to do without dislocating several joints.
Jem clung to the rear of the coach for several blocks, until the pain in his shoulder was too great and he had to let go. He rolled as he fell, but got swiftly to his feet and ran into a side alley. Once in the alley he stopped and checked his wound. It was bleeding, but was not too deep. He had suffered worse.
He glanced at the sky. He could see Nochturon had risen; it was getting late. Jem moved to the end of the alley, peering cautiously out onto the street. He snapped his head back behind the wall, subconsciously holding his breath. Abner was walking down the street. Jem slipped back, hiding below a rough-hewn bench bolted to the side of a shop. He waited, hoping Abner would keep walking.
”You, there! Why are you loitering here?” an indignant voice demanded from on the street. ”I won’t hold with thieving near my shop. It’s bad enough that I just missed catching that thief who jumped off the back of that carriage, now there’s another of you eyeing up my wares this time.”
”Go back inside old man.” Abner’s cold reply echoed down the alley. ”Your wares aren’t what I’m after tonight. Which way did the boy who jumped off the cart go?”
”Ha! So you want to join up with your accomplice! I was right!”
”What’s all this shouting?” A third voice joined the debate.
”Ah a rare sight indeed! A guardsman when I need one. This young criminal and his associate have been rampaging down this street, and then the next thing I see is this one eyeing up my wares!”
”Has he? Foolish young rascal. I will deal with him.”
Jem heard Abner curse and a thud like a body slamming into a wall. Then Jem saw the guard dragging Abner by the collar into the alley. Jem tried to make himself smaller and held his breath. Only the darkness of the doorway kept him hidden. The guard pushed Abner up against the wall, before looking up and down the alley.
”Just love to get noticed don’t you, Abner?” Jem’s head swum with shock. How did the guard know who Abner was?
”Got anything to keep on my good side?”
”I know Gilbert Bitwright is planning to break into an apothecary.”
”An? What use to me is ‘an apothecary’? I pay you to snitch, not tell me useless gossip! If you want paying you will need to tell me which apothecaries, and when. I take it you can do that or are you as useless as the rest of the ‘shadow boys’?”
”I can! I just need more time. He only uses me for running errands, but soon he’ll ask me to pass on the exact details to the others. He trusts me.”
”Then find out. And don’t come causing problems on my area. I don’t want to see you around here.” With that the guard flung Abner to the floor. As Abner pushed himself up to his knees his eyes met Jem’s. Jem saw recognition, then fear.
”He knows me. You’ll get nothing if he gets away!” Abner pointed at Jem whilst shouting at the confused guard, who still had not made out Jem in his gloomy shadow.
Jem sprung from his hiding place. The guard stared at him for a heartbeat, before lunging at Jem and tripping up on Abner who had dived at Jem’s legs. Jem bolted out of the alley, running as fast as he could. With his lungs aching with effort he checked behind him to see if his alley hopping had allowed him to escape. After a mene of watching he felt safe enough to make his way to the guardhouse where tonight’s work waited to be done.
Jem was late. Late, for a scheme which relied on perfect timing. As he arrived sweating and staggering he saw Col.
”Col, Where is everyone?”
Col looked at Jem; his face betrayed relief, then confusion. ”Quick! Eliza has started already. We thought you weren’t coming!”
Jem followed Col to a doorway where he could see Eliza. She had just reached the guardhouse and was pulling herself onto a low outbuilding’s roof.
Jem could see that Eliza was struggling. She lacked the strength needed to pull herself smoothly onto the low roof of the guardhouse outbuilding. Her legs drummed against the wall of the outbuilding as she climbed. Once on the outhouse roof, she paused for a breath’s span of time. Jem saw her start to climb the guardhouse wall proper. Her thin fingers slid easily into the cracks between the poorly maintained stone work, but her twig thin arms struggled to pull her up. Inch by inch she made her way up the wall. Jem watched as Eliza slowly edged herself up onto a window ledge. The window frame looked rotten but the stone lintel she pulled herself onto looked solid.
Jem could see she was breathing heavily, and flexing her fingers as if to loosen them. Suddenly he saw Eliza relax against the window frame which gave with a loud shattering noise. Shouts from inside emerged unintelligibly. Eliza swung back out on to the wall and started to climb up further.
Without warning Eliza lost her grip with one hand followed almost instantly by the other. She fell with a jarring thump onto the out building roof. Jem started to emerge from his doorway, ready to run and help her when he saw a guardsman climbing onto the roof next to her. The guardsman stood and looked down at her.
”Well well, a thief. Not the best place to try and break in, but this is why I tell the lieutenant we need to keep the house manned all the time. Up, you.” With the last comment he grabbed her wrist and dragged her to her feet. Eliza coughed and spat red liquid onto the roof. The guard looked disgusted and said, ”Hmm not a good sign. See if you’re still alive in the morning. If you are, the lieutenant will want to speak to you.” With that he dragged Eliza off into the guardhouse.
Jem watched, shaking. Eliza had looked so feeble as she had been dragged away.
”Right, Col go find the others, tell them Eliza’s in the guardhouse. Tell them I might need their help.” Col ran off, the echoes of his footfalls fading into silence leaving Jem hiding in silence.
Jem stayed in his shadowed doorway for almost a bell, his body cramped and tired. Just as he made up his mind to try sneaking into the guardhouse after her, the main doors flew open, and two wide eyed guardsmen ran out.
”Quarantine! Quarantine! Everyone stay in their house. Plague!” yelled one guard who spat in between each exclamation.
”Where are we going, Titus?” The second guard was already breathing heavily trying to catch up.
”A surgeon! Fool.” The pair continued to argue as they hurried down the street, their words becoming fainter and less distinct.
Jem did not spend time thinking about what the guard had said; Eliza had looked hurt and might need his help. Unfolding his aching body, he ran across the road in a half crouch. In his haste he ran right in front of a pair of leather clad guards, attracted by the shouts of his compatriots. Jem slowed, trying to look nonchalant; he had done nothing wrong.
”Hey you! What are you doing?”
Jem’s memory fed him an unpleasant recollection. As he turned his head, he found himself staring into the eyes of the guard Abner had been talking to.
Jem did not think, he just turned and ran. His legs protested, stiff from the earlier chase. His ears picked up the unmistakable sound of running footsteps; the guards were chasing him. As he ran Jem became angry. This was not just about him; Eliza needed help. Jem ran for Commercial Street, dodging around a group of late night revelers. He ignored the mock encouragement they shouted.
Jem’s whirring thoughts over Eliza’s plight pulled his concentration away from his escape. He almost collided with a staggering drunk, managing to turn aside at the last heartbeat. He focused back on the present. Jem put a last burst of speed, before turning and diving through the low, bleached door frame of a sailor’s tavern. Inside the gloomy interior, his arrival was met by a disinterested stare from the landlord who was tidying up for the night. The handful of dead-drunk customers left did not stir from their various slack slouches.
Knowing he only had a sliver of time, he ran for a table and tried to hide behind the bulk of a huge fat man who was asleep in a puddle of what Jem hoped was spilt beer. Jem pulled up the hood on his cloak and tried to carry on breathing without moving. Within a handful of breaths a pair of guards tore into the room. Their heavy breathing did nothing to slow their aggressive entrance.
”Where is he?” Jem could not see the landlord’s response but he heard both guards approach. The guards roughly pushed chairs out of their way as they came closer. Jem looked out from under his hood; he was trapped. A rough grip pulled him from his seat.
”Got ya,” said the sweating guard, shaking him.
”Please sir, I did nothing!”
”Doubt that! Who’s this?” the guard asked. Jem pointing at the fat man Jem had tried hiding behind.
The guard holding Jem indicated with his head, the second guard strode over to the prone figure, and lifted the man’s face from the pool of liquid by his hair. The guard swore, dropping the man’s head with a thump.
”His face! He’s covered in blackspot!” Wiping his hand against his trousers the guard backed away.
Jem was dragged along with the first guard, who was holding his hand over his own mouth. The landlord had heard the word, blackspot, and run into the back.
As Jem was dragged back onto the street he found himself surrounded by guardsmen. The press of men parted, admitting a man on a horse.
”What is this? Why are you chasing street rats when there’s a plague ship in the harbour? Titus, here, tells me the infection is ashore, in my guardhouse no less!” Jem’s arm was released but he could go nowhere, surrounded as he was by guardsmen.
”Plague ship, Lieutenant?”
”Yes, plague ship! One of the traders hoisted the flag a bell ago, just after Titus went screaming to Doctor Savitt’s house demanding a cure for blackspot. Right, everyone, I want this street quarantined. No one leaves.”
”Lieutenant? There’s a man in there with blackspot.” The guard indicated back into the bar.
”Plague has already taken hold of Dargon. We must do what we can to protect the rest of the city, to your duty men.” The mounted man began directing pairs of guards to form barricades along the exits from Commercial Street.
The guards who had chased Jem into the bar looked at him as if searching his face for signs of disease.
”If you’re still alive after this has passed, we’ll be looking for you.” With that both men turned to join their fellow guards.
Jem walked back towards the guardhouse. The street was deserted. Those who had heard the guard’s cries of quarantine were staying away from the windows. As he approached the guardhouse he saw Osbert and Aylwin, peering out of an ally mouth. Jem gestured to them. They ran to join him as he entered the guardhouse through the main entrance.
They crept through the silent building, their steps making tiny scuffing sounds as they picked their way towards the only lit room. As he entered Jem exhaled slowly. He saw Eliza lying in the middle of the room. He slowly approached, checking the shadows of the room for anyone else.
”Eliza?” he whispered, creeping closer.
He looked closer. Black spots covered Eliza’s face and she lay completely still. Near her outstretched hand Jem saw a small hardwood box with a built in lock. It was just as Hugo had described. Jem moved forward picking up the box.
”That was easy,” whispered Osbert.
”Easier than climbing a mast?” asked Aylwin.
”Easier than painting spots on a drunk,” countered Osbert.
”Easier than lying in a cell pretending to be dead,” said Jem.
”No it is not!” said Eliza, sitting up. ”It was no fun at all, waiting around for you to stroll in!” She was wiping spots of black dye from her face, with a sleeve, as she spoke.
Jem stuffed the box into his shirt.
”Come on we need to make ourselves scarce. Doctor Savitt’s on the case, and shutting down a huge section of the city might just get us noticed.”
Once on the street Jem showed them a series of low warehouse roofs that allowed them to bypass the guard’s barricades.
”What about Abner?” asked Aylwin as he peered over the edge to the silent streets below.
”Snitching to the guard’s unforgivable. It’s not just the Shadow King who will be after him. Nowhere in Dargon will be safe for him. It’s his turn to run.”
Jem told them to meet at noon the following day, when he would divvy out Hugo’s money. He felt a swell of pride as he watched his friends run off, disappearing silently into the shadows of Dargon.