Always chuckle to think how it began.
I were finished with the nightwork, taking my fresh stolen shine through the channels back to an ale. The sun scaring the last of us streetmen away, when I near knocked her over. Defiant child, shivering and spitting at me, awkward in the morning. Me, a man thrice the width and twice the height. I were blade shining ready for a teaching when those flashing green eyes caught mine.
Thank the Gods none played witness. Few in the city would have faced me and not been quick bleeding for it. There I was, melted down like spring ice by a bone-built slip of a thing. I first figured her for a madling. Bad omens in killing the mad. Their mind meeting yours as the life leaves. Else the child were one more drop of waste for the Sweepers. Then I noticed her clothes. If she were madling, she were a rich one. I’d prised into enough bedrooms and whistled away enough finery to know Arimean goldtrim when I saw it. Nine silvers a bolt, if you lay it clever in the right claws.
“The alleys of Tel Elenor make poor playground,” I warned her, gruff despite the smile that bred inside me.
“I walk where I please,” she says, chin steady as a bench.
That birthed the laugh out of me. I sheathed my blade and bent like a windreed. “Walk back then, little lady,” I says, “where the sun shines a mite brighter.”
I stretched a hand out, only to take a cats’ rake cross the knuckles for the chance. And laughed all the more. Rose and bowed. Gods’ eyes upon it I did. Rose and bowed and walked away. Even sent a streetman back later, though without the tale of what to look for. The alley clear. And me relieved no harm had found the child.
A season after I found her again. High summer and a warm day, lazy as Tel Elenor ever saw, and me with it, taking it light, resting on the circled stones of the Fountain, under the Spire. A different girl, beside the fountain in her finery. I would have passed, but the eyes caught me again. She ran a hand through the waters and flicked gem drops at me. And some impulse, like I was a lovelorn fool, found me beside her on the fountain’s edge, though my back was bared and I little liked the expanse of the square.
“And where’s your mother, little girl?” A petty venge, but sport enough. Gave me a daggerish look, she did.
“I get the veil next festival,” she said, angry, telling me she wasn’t called girl much longer. Nor was she, small breasts pushing out. But bones enough still.
Always was a poor man at such talk. Kept some chatter when I was plenty aled, for those women who needed none. I felt foolish before this one, the fountain making pale green ripples down her back.
She held a hand out. Skinny soft thing, with a braided silver ring. Nice little piece. And what to do? Kiss it?
“How many silvers?” she asks, sweet as a summer rain.
That had me smiling. Safer ground. Unexpected, but I played ‘praiser. “Three.”
Snorted a little breath, good as any House trader. “Eight my mother paid! I know. The servants told me. Three?!” Breathy little snort again.
“Eight at some Darius stall. Three in the street.” Another piece of madness in the tale. To let this sliplet hear a little streettalk. All she needed was to raise that quiet voice of hers, and every noble wandering nearby would have hauled me to the Robes and the end of daylight for this streetman.
Before I knew it myself I’d slid the silvers over. If you made me walk all the way to an answer as to why I done something foolish as that, well, I’d be trudging along still. When she’d pursed the coin she held out her hand, prim. That was a sweaty moment. Taking a ring from a noble child in the Testerris square at highsun. But I was playing a game I couldn’t leave. Slipped it over the knuckle and quick away. And she caught it all, the shoulder glance, the flash of a frown on my face. Had her smiling prettier than ever.
“I sit here on market days,” she says, earnest as a lover. Another flick of fountain over me, like she were some Pentarch priestess and me the dirt-dry farmer. She laughed and trickled away, leaving me with half a smile and half a frown and a silver ring.
It’s a scattered life, being a streetman. I were grown to Quarter Leader, and whispered for greater, though I never sought such things. Three seasons mongst the shipping crews in the Dock Quarter and didn’t trouble on her. Must have been a full turn and summer again when I next eyed her in the red veil and she was angry. “Good wares I’ve had,” she says, “and what door locked on you?” She was rank insulted.
And me again, what did I do? Mumbled regrets to her like a wayward husband. She had good wares, and me without the silvers for the goldstone brooch and the copper pins she offered.
Settled myself that a trade were a trade and kept an eye for her after that. Could have commanded another to such petty dealings, but wanted her a secret. Hard to find the tongue for why. Shine I had enough, but she were a tryst all my own. A thin surprise in her finery just for me, in a world where surprises got you dragged to the Spire.
Found her down by the Kaltan corner next, and switched well. And better the next meeting, and more beyond. Wondered what her parents thought, her losing bits of shine like that, ’til I realized she was lifting them. I tried to tell her care, but she was paces ahead. “I take them in the gardens,” she laughs like a trinket, “and the groomsmen search through the beds after, and the ladies shout around the hedges. ‘Where’s my necklace? Where’s my anklet?’”
They were better knacks than the street brought, and good profit. So I switched regular with her as the seasons nudged each other and the greys spread over my head ’til they all called me Dustrabbit. She were past ready for the blue veil when I found her crying along the Holdann way. Seems she had fended well, but no dancing round the marriage they wanted her tied to. This time she called it gift—chased gold with river stones inlaid and worth more than a season’s takings. Though it were a strange price she wanted.
“Take me with you.”
To where? Back to my shifting world, and hardly a bed the same for more than a nineday? And what meaning else? Were we to share one now? Me twice her summers easy? I snorted hopeless, and she countered with that cutting green stare.
“Take me with you. I can bring you more. Better than this. Find me a room somewhere.”
Sometimes you’ve got to cast an eye over your memory careful, as if some filching God has stolen the truth of things and set some glass bead instead. But no, it were true shining enough. I took her in. Not to my bed mind, never did know whether... anyway, I took her and stashed her with Yag. She was softish with the young ones.
“Care well on her,” was all I had to tell.
Yag sniffed at it all but she played her colors right. “Kingly raise a brow.”
“Nothing that’s worth the music,” I lied.
Yag pushed her mouth sideways. “Long as no leaves get in my gutter,” she muttered.
And what to tell the old man before he heard whisper? That the ‘Rabbit had taken to rich Elenorian girls. Or worse, that the ‘Rabbit was softening. Taking in strays for a few tears and a brooch. So I went to the tanner’s yard with my hand cross my nose, eyes watering, and stood amongst the pigshit and talked through the faded curtain to the Streetking.
“I took a new streetman. From good family. She knows the ways of the Hill Streets and the High Quarter. Windows and sly servants and more. I’ll pay her keep and take the Knives’ share.”
Liked it little, hoarse coughing old goat that he was. Suggested she was best sent back. I laid the shine out for him, though. He never could set his eyes much past the glint of things.
He must have thought the ‘Rabbit was playing at muscle. But who’d want that hidden life? The unease of it. The tickle on your shoulder. Like you should be glancing, waiting for the blade. He could have it, and let the Gods piss gold on him.
I were never one for teasing out knots. Know a little, know enough. Mother telt me that, and I stood for it. Liked a little comfort, a little respect in the right places. All I ever needed. Happy enough with the night games, to hear the sleeper breathing easy while I snatched a little shine. The ales in the early daylight, sifting through the coppers for the silvers. Paid my share, always paid my share.
Little wanted the part of the ‘King’s Voice, but it came to me. I thought it strange I were chosen and telt her so. “You big fool, ‘Rabbit,” she says, jingling a laugh at me. No-one called me ‘Rabbit. It were Dustrabbit or master, them that dared utter a word before me. Only her, saying it soft as fur lining. “That’s exactly why you were chosen. ‘Ever the ‘King expects the knife.’ You know the saying. He chose you because he knows you do not wish his crown. You are his castellan. You are his inner keep. Whoever comes for him now, comes through you.”
Sense enough, when she laid the tiles of it out for me, but it left me squirmish. Knew enough to know I were raised up beyond my promise. I knew the streets. I were a quick strike and a wary eye, but this... this were a murky world I had never learned the mapping of. I wanted out of it. Told her I’d give it away, but she shook her head, smiling her half-mouth smile. “The ‘King will have you killed if you do.”
“And the Quarters will if I don’t.” I don’t know why I played argument with that one. Never won that battle in all the seasons I’d tilted with her. Like a knife against a Dharian longsword.
“I’ll help you,” she says.
And help she did, soon enough. Sitting one evening, on the wall that circles the Grovan hill where they scribe the names of the noble dead, wet sun bringing winter. I were tying up the market business with her, she drumming her heels on the founders of the city.
She put a hand on my arm. And me jolted like a beestung packmule. She never touched. Least not any streetman I’d heard tell of, girded nor gowned. Streetboys called her Lady Chaste when they were nicest of it. Never stopped ‘em following her, running tricks and watches for her though. Still, jolted me, and wouldn’t like to think all the way to why.
“Don’t go,” she says, earnest as a priest.
“Where?” I asks.
“The Darius taking. Don’t do it.”
“And who will? You plying for the job?” Tried the jest of it.
“They’ll try your back tomorrow. The Quarter Leaders gathered last night. If you must go, go guarded.” And off the wall she drops, quick as a midnight tickle, and gone.
I watched her walk away. She never looked back. Something I always shared with her. Ply the window and get through. Never straddle the sill. Still, her warning twisted, but I were proud-built and knew the slope fear will slide you down. If I were to shy from this, were I to cower from the next taking, and the next beyond?
I twisted with it all day. Still, I went that night but double armed and third-eyed. And well, well warned too. They sent me in first, said I were better tempered for finding trading house steel. That’s when I knew it were dismal.
I remember it sharp as a Dharian edge. A dark warren of rooms. I held the shadows in the doorway ’til they flared the tinder to the torch. A hand of guards waiting, grinning in the shadows. I tried the door, but it were barred behind me. Trapped, as she gleaned I would be. But not bleeding yet, this ‘Rabbit.
I flicked away two of the throwing knives I’d brought. Caught the one with the torch. No kill strike—I were never one for throwing—but enough to drop her, and her torch too. In the half dark I tumbled and flicked again, and was up the wall and in the rafters fore their bolts found the wood.
I’d taken a little care. Knew the place were nothing but converted stables. Walls below but clear roof above. I played acrobat on the beams and were long past them before they figured the play. Prised some shingles in the far corner, and I were gone.
There were blades out for me after that. I had friends enough, but few want to knock knives with a Streetking, so I hid careful, though I couldn’t hide forever. But she found me. Sent the half-child with his messed-up mouth. He dribbled out a meeting place and hunched off.
So there’s me, wrapped dark, under the Watergate where the Sweepers push waste into the river, sitting a poor tile in this game, sweating on her like a waiting lover. She came in her blue coat, folding out a plan like an Arnor mapweaver. Here and here, and who to sign to, and who would look away, and what needed done.
“The Streetking must die,” she says, simple as a finger.
“And me the blade for it?”
“That, or feel the other end.” She smiles.
So two days later, there’s me crawling down the Diarn passage, back glancing, fearful on the pavements of my own city. A breath and a word at the side of the smithworkings, where rooms and rooms of dull-faced silver shiners play their part spreading Elenor brightwares to the world. Every watcher turned their face, every door opened quiet, and I were nodded through.
None see the Streetking, that’s the rule of it. Even the Voice talks to the ‘King only through a door or a curtain. Takes the word to the street, who to hit and who to leave, what guards are lazy for a coin or two. But we’ve always known, ’til now, who the ‘King was. Forgotten the lines of the face a little, but the next ‘King were always the old Voice or one of the Quarter Leaders.
He was older than I remembered him, when I tickled the lock and came for him, blade sharp and hungry. Old and glaze-eyed so that even fear never reached his face when I sunk the blade under his cage and the old goat knew the dark blood for death. Gave a grimace like relief, he did. I knew for certain then. I never wanted that. Lonely, grey dying. The knife no more than easy escape. When I go, I want life bleeding hard and sad out of me. Swore that to myself.
But it raised a beggar for the asking. Which Quarter Leader the next ‘King? Fool I ever was. The King’s killer it were now, and me rather with the Robes dragging me to the Spire than that. They made the Kingsign to me, all the way back through the silver sprinkled rooms. Dazed all the way.
She were there, in the stables behind the stonehaulers where the Corsarian greathorses mused on their oats and waited for the yoking. I threw the blade down angry at it all, at the workings of things.
“Never wanted this,” I says. “Never more than what I had. And what now?”
She touched me gentle on my cheek ragged with beard. Kissed me like a tickle. “I’ll play ‘King for a time,” she says.
And there you have it all. There it’s been for nine summers and a few. Half the streetmen think me Streetking still, and the others... well it matters small. She’s full woman now, and where she stays and who she is with, I couldn’t say if you took a flail to me. Every meeting place is different, and I never know when the sign will come. She leaves me with the daily grub of things. Only calls when something glints under the straw.
And I’d lay my life for this girl in a moment. For those green eyes and that mineshaft mind. That little scratchling waif. Bones and brave and beautiful. They would muddle their eyes and look again, were the world to know it.
I am Dustrabbit still, but she has become the Streetking.