Thieves at Heart Chapter 2
A Contract of Emotion
Shortly after they arrived in the city of Southwick, the lessons began. The lessons were varied and were meant to teach different things. One of the first things The Lurk taught her was self-defense.
“Now I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that ladies and men have different parts to them,” he said as he flicked the butt of his cigarette into the gutter, the acrid smell mixing with the stench of the open sewer. His shirt sleeves were rolled up and he set his booted feet firmly on the cobbled street, sniffling as he did. “Now this is where you’ve a bit of an advantage, Tavi dear. If any man grabs you for any reason and you want him off quick, just hit him betwixt and off he goes. Don’t show any mercy or you’re more likely to piss the man off. Grab, kick, bite if you have to but make it count and then run. If for some reason you can’t reach ‘em or you’re up against a woman, a quick thump to the nose works as well.” He lightly boxed her on the nose, tears welling up in her eyes making the alley seem like a blur of browns and blacks for just a few breaths. “But much harder,” he said. “Try to draw more than tears.”
In Greyhollow they stayed in a room above a tavern. Tavi was given the bed with the warm blankets and if Derk ever minded sleeping in the chair by the door, he never complained. The stairs leading down to the tavern creaked no matter how lightly they stepped and the Lurk was always very kind to the tender he called Brags. Derk introduced Tavi to him as Kiffer. This had made the old man cleaning glasses with a dirty rag laugh and he offered her an apple from behind the bar every time he saw her. Tavi always took it and as Derk had instructed her, thanked him, trying her best to answer to the new name her father had bestowed upon her.
“You must be careful not to shit where you eat, Tavi,” he said one day as he was rolling a cigarette. He had acquired a lock from somewhere and Tavera was trying to pick it, inserting the pin he bought her all those phases ago and a filed nail into the keyhole, fiddling them around, her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth as she tried to feel with metal fingers. Derk licked the paper and gazed over to gauge her progress, reaching over to light the cigarette in the lantern as he finished his thought. “Few people will truly deserve your kindness but if they do, give it to them. In the line of work we’re in, few trust us, though many more falsely say they do. When you move about a lot, a friendly face is worth more than a grip of blues.” He took a pull of the smoke just as Tavera’s mouth and the lock popped open. Derk smiled at her while Tavera beamed, her small, skinny hands shaking with excitement. “Very good, Tavi,” he said.
It was from Derk that she learned her numbers and her letters. After most lessons, Derk would light his pipe, sit upon the nearest thing he could sit upon and say, “Now take care to recall this, as there’ll be a test.” This distressed Tavera greatly and finally one afternoon, after another self-defense bout that actually left Derk with a bloody nose, she admitted she had no knowledge of cipher or script. “Tits of ivory, you can’t write or do figures?” He laughed incredulously, bright red blood trickling from his nose so that it dripped onto his shirt. Only after a bit of time did he finish laughing and then he cleaned up properly and put his arm around her, grabbing his pack on the way out of the alley. “I shouldn’t be surprised, not like whores need instructions to get it done. Toss a bottle down an alley, and it’s over.”
Tavera stiffened at his words. Her thoughts of Prisca resurfaced and a lump formed in her throat as she thought of the time she had spent with Prisca and how the woman had betrayed her. It still stung, raw in her memory like a scab that had been pulled off. Derk squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and led her down the street, holding her to him in something like a hug. “Come now, don’t think upon her, she can’t hurt you anymore,” he said in an attempt to comfort her, somehow knowing what she was thinking. “You’re with me now.” He carried her to a small shop and bought her a tablet and some chalks to learn letters. They used coins the Lurk had won at gambling to study numbers and values, learning the conversions of half blueies to blueies to fullies. Tavera was much better at the numbers than the letters, much to Derk’s delight and chagrin.
Some of the lessons were harder, closer to Tavera’s old life but necessary. One morning he announced that he wouldn’t buy her any food for a phase and unleashed her on the streets. Tavera roamed the markets for an entire watch, looking over her shoulder for the blond thief that was supposed to be training her. Food danced out in the corner of her eye, taunting her. The little girl watched carefully, sniffing the air, dark eyes set not on the food making her mouth water but on those manning the food carts and stalls. Her stomach gurgled, not to the point of distraction but sharp enough to make her senses keen, honing the movements that drew her closer to her target, conserving her energy for both stealth and speed. At the most opportune moment, when her ears buzzed with excitement but when able to best control it, she struck, small hands and wiry fingers darting out, skinny legs walking casually to where she would be able to enjoy her food in peace. Her heart thumped in her chest as she walked, faster than her normal pace and Tavi tried her best to keep from giggling with excitement.
One day after acquiring a rather delicious piece of fish, she turned the corner only to walk right into the Lurk, smashing into him so that she shouted in surprise and fell back. The ground was hard and Tavi winced as she fell onto her backside, tears springing to her eyes with pain. Derk picked up the piece of fish and sniffed it rather thoughtfully, running it under his nose like one of the cigarettes he was always rolling. Tavera narrowed her eyes at him for once while she pressed her lips together, arms crossed over her belly meant to dampen the sound of her growling stomach.
“This is what you have going for you now, Tavera dear, and listen to me,” he started, and she recognized the tone he always used when he was going to point something out. “You don’t stand out. Many children are obnoxious and call attention to themselves. They tug on skirts and caterwaul. They cry for food, as if they deserve it. I imagine misfortune has made this path unavailable to you as a way to get what you need, but you have turned necessity into a gift. When one looks upon you, they see a sad waif. Nothing special, even with your ear and that skin of yours that hints at something else. Floating about sadly, most likely to wind up adrift in the gutters some day, that’s what people see, those that don’t know any better. And then you strike and they’re none the wiser.” Derk was smiling though his words weren’t kind. They made Tavera’s face hot and she bit her lip, wondering what he was getting it. She knew better than to interrupt him and waited as he gestured, completing his speech, her ear perking up to take it all in. “This will work for now,” he continued, “while you’re young and skinny and pathetic looking. But what happens when those years of change come?” Blue eyes looked her over and Tavera made a face at him, trying to shoo his gaze away, which made him laugh. “You’re not much to look at now but I’ve seen plenty ugly little girls grow up to have looks that destroy men’s egos and burn through purses. People will be watching you. Not now but once you’ve grown some, you will have eyes upon you. Please, keep this in mind.
“Which brings me to another point,” Derk said, sniffing the fish again, the girl’s mouth watering as she thought about how good it would taste, the tender, smoky flesh tinged with just the right amount of salt, the crunchy bits she would save for last. He eyed the girl for a few breaths before he went on, dangling the fish in front of her. “Watch your Ws. We’re thieves, and fine ones. Well, I’m a fine one and you’re only my student for now. Stupid thieves, sloppy thieves, lazy ones turn the same tricks all the time. In through the window, out the back door, blade to the purse strings.
“Do not let this get boring and always learn or be willing to do so. Change it all the time or the seat-and-sworders will have a set of bracelets on you before the fun is over. To be unstoppable you must be unpredictable and un…well, when I think of the word, I’ll tell you.” Tavi stuck her tongue out at him and tried to grab the fish but he pulled it away at the last second and laughed, grinning at her. “And by Her luminous breasts, get away from the guards before they have you by the wrists in metal. Not because you won’t be able to get out of them but because it’s better they think you’re a common criminal rather than know who you really are. Or in your case, what you’re going to be.” At this, he ripped the fish carefully in two and handed one of the pieces to Tavi, eating his portion gingerly and never speaking if his mouth was full of food. She gobbled hers up, considering his words as she chewed and gulped, not bothering to save any of it for later. When she was done eating, he gave her a handful of last years dried ground apples for a treat.
Derk introduced her to a variety of colorful figures, calling them by names that couldn’t possibly be their real ones. Tavi soon learned though he was acquainted with all the men he introduced her to (as Kiffer), he knew some men better than others, to the point where he actually knew their given names. These names were never spoken in public and rarely in private company. It was in Brags’ bar that she met Snitch Bigguns, a man with a giant nose and an ego to match. Merl was handy with cards and often called upon when a joke was in order, an expert in diffusing a tense situation. Vamp the Lipper possessed a fine, falsetto singing voice that never hinted at the beatings the man could deliver when provoked. All these men and more knew the Lurk and delighted in the Kiffer. They plied her with treats and blueies, gave her sips of their drinks and asked her when she would be kind enough to play snakesman for them.
“What’s the Cup of Cream?” she asked the Lurk one afternoon as they sat in the bar. The taste of the watered down stout Brags served children still danced on her tongue and the dark brown foam fizzled above her mouth. Derk quickly scanned the room before he turned his eyes back on her and took out his pocket handkerchief, leaning over the table and wiping her mouth before setting the hanky on the table top and smiling.
“So, you do catch on,” he said, lacing his fingers around the mug of beer. He turned in his seat slightly so that his body cheated away from the rest of Brags’ clientèle before he took a long sip and peered at Tavi, keen blue eyes staring into her. “Do you remember the little trick I played on you, when we first met? Remember what I said?”
Tavi frowned slightly, her large mouth still wet with beer. It hadn’t been a funny trick, she thought, remembering how she had been tied up, the pain in her head, the fright. But it had been a trick, part of it. Everything since that night had been fine, better than her life before. The soothsayers words had been meant for Tavera, not Prisca. Tavi knew that now. The half elf girl enjoyed the instructions she received from Derk and the smiles she received from him when she succeeded made her smile more often than not. There was a wish to make him happy and so she tried to think of what he had told her that night, blinking. She pushed a streak of hair out of her face and shrugged. “The dregs…the dregs wind up in the Jugs.”
“And what does cream do?” he asked, leaning over slightly, his voice low and even. Tavera leaned back in her seat, gulping slightly as she tried to think of the right thing to say.
“It…it rises to the top.” She was fairly certain that this was the answer and the smile playing behind Derk’s eyes told her she was right. He nodded, leaning over the table again, this time to tussle her hair.
“Right you are, Tavi dear. The Cream always rises to the top. The Dregs fall to the bottom. And we, well I am part of the Cream, me and my mates. If you keep going the way you’re going, you’ll be up there with us. We’re a small club, tight knit though some knots are tighter than others, if you catch my meaning. Not everyone I show you off to is in on it, but you’ll soon be able to piece it out or you’ll have to. Just ask me when we’re alone, you and I, if you ain’t sure.” He drummed his fingers on the table top and looked around, a bit of nervousness showing in his face for the very first time. As soon as Tavera saw it the look was gone and his eyes were on her again, the tone of a teacher back in his words. “That’s another thing you should learn, when to ask question, what kinds of questions to ask, things of that nature. By Her heaving chest, I should be writing this all down and keeping track, now, shouldn’t I?”
The most important of the first lessons Derk the Lurk taught Tavera was not meant to be a lesson at all. One cold evening he sent Tavera off with a few coins to the Fence to buy him some of the tobacco he liked so much, telling her to be quick as he was almost out. The little girl cut through the alleys, running over the cobbled streets as quickly as she could, trying to outrun the stench of decay and refuse that permeated the streets in this particular part of town. Her footsteps echoed in the barren streets, making the city at night seem bigger than it actually was. Turning a corner, an arm darted out and grabbed a hold of her, twisting her arm backwards before she could react. The coins fell to the ground, clinking melodiously as a filthy hand covered her mouth, callouses rendering her teeth useless, her small frame lifted off the ground.
Tavera tried to scream, twisting and writhing in her attacker’s arms but her attempts to escape drew his sordid frame around her tighter, almost crushing. It was dark in the alley, the dim lantern light of the main street seeming to back away from her as she kicked, one of her boots flying off of her feet. Nails dug into her and horrible words hissed in her ear. The words were terrible and drew muffled shrieks from her throat, hot tears of protest forming in her eyes. Then there was a whistling sound, a jerk and suddenly she was released. Tavi fell to the ground, crying out as the sharp rocks pounded into her bare knees, gasping as she tried to breath. She turned around to see what happened and saw a filthy man with green rotten teeth and calloused hands lying on his back, blood gurgling from his mouth. Out of the shadows stepped two figures: one hooded and wearing a long, green scarf, his gloved hands wielding a crossbow. The other was Derk, his eyes two points of blue fire set in a face of stone. The fingers on his right hand moved and a dagger produced itself out of thin air, the two men walking past her and circling around her assailant.
Derk said something that she couldn’t make out but the air seemed to burn with words of intense, concentrated hatred. He spat to the side, the man in the hood matching his gait, cocking the crossbow back so loudly it made her jump. The man on the ground arched his back and Tavera could see the remnants of a bolt in his back, his blood mingling with the slick wetness of the cobblestones. The man blubbered something about a misunderstanding, that he was only playing and the little girl was overreacting to a joke. He gasped in pain, the milky whites of his eyes shining as Derk and the stranger stood over him, the dagger glinting and its light seeming to whisper a prophecy in the dark. Tavera drew in her breath as the light of the dagger disappeared and then glowed once more, darker, redder, dripping with a slowing tempo as the man on the ground wheezed and then stopped moving.
“Worthless,” Derk said, looking up to his comrade, nodding to him quickly. “Many thanks, Jezlen,” he said, turning his attention to the little girl. The dagger was still dirty with the dead man’s blood, but his eyes had softened. His empty hand reached out towards her. “Tavera,” he said quietly. “Tavera, are you alright? Did he hurt you?”
Tavi managed to shake her head but found her legs unable to work. She wouldn’t cry, she told herself, holding back the whimpers that threatened to erupt into tears. Derk stepped over the body and walked up to her, scooping her up into his arms.
“I’m sorry, Derk,” she said, crying into his shoulder, wrapping her arms around his neck. She buried her face into his coat and cloak, the tears coming anyway and soaking them through as she sobbed. “I tried to do what you told me but he picked me up so fast, I couldn’t do nothing, I’m sorry.” He shushed her gently telling her it wasn’t her fault and he understood.
“What now, Dershik?” For a moment Tavera wondered who the hooded man was talking to, her eyes setting upon Derk as she realized that the hooded man was talking to him. Dershik must be his real name and Jezlen must in the Cup, she thought. Dershik, or Derk the Lurk shrugged, wiping his blade on the dead man’s clothes, clutching the girl to him tightly.
“I doubt anyone will miss this sorry hem-chewer. Find her boot, will you?” he said. Still holding Tavera to him with one arm, he pulled out his flask, unscrewed the lid with his teeth and poured it over the already stinking body. “We’re off to Portsmouth, if you need us.”
Tavera could swear she could see a smile gleam from within the hood, the fellow uncocking his crossbow and holstering it within his cloak. The other man walked a few steps down the alley and bent down, picking her boot up off the ground and handing it over to Derk. “Portsmouth, eh?” he said. His voice had a strange accent to it, though there was also mirth in his words. Tavera wondered where he was from. “I hear Celeel is there.”
“Old Gam? Yah don’t say?” The way Derk said it make Tavera think that he knew this woman was there and she saw the other man narrow his eyes at Derk while Derk just wagged his eyebrows at him. “Well maybe I’ll pop by for a smoke and a bit to show off little Tavi. What say you?” Tavera looked up, large eyes meeting Derk’s, her large mouth still in a rather pathetic pout but her eyes void of tears. He kissed her soundly on the forehead, the first time he had done so, before he slipped her boot back onto her foot. Holding onto her firmly he stretched his free arm towards his friend.
“Take care of yourself and the little one,” Jezlen said and the two men shook hands, finally falling into something like an embrace. The man was careful not to touch Tavera. “And tell Old Gam I still dislike her.”
“She still dislikes you, I’m sure of it.” Derk turned and they left. When Tavera looked down the alley, Jezlen was gone but the body was still there, lifeless. The rats were already scurrying out of the shadows to claim their share.
Derk, Dershik, her adopted father. He had killed a man to protect her. There was something frightening about knowing this but something comforting, a kind of peace that seemed to envelope them both as they walked down alleys, coming to a stable. The danger was gone but the ordeal had made Tavera tired, the words Derk exchanged with the stableman lost to her. They both mounted a single horse, Derk setting Tavera on the saddle in front of him and taking the reigns himself. Her mind wandered as the horse walked quietly out of the city through the night, taking the man and little girl with him. Derk was her father and she knew it now. He had done something heroic to save her, been there in her time of need. Isn’t that what a father was? Someone to protect her when she needed protecting? Someone to be there for her? Someone to love her enough to do so. The steady rhythm of the horses motion was soothing and she could feel Derk’s heart beating in his chest. She smiled as she cuddled closer to the man who wrapped his cloak around her protectively and Tavera felt warm and comfortable, both inside and out. “I love you, poppa,” she said quietly. The moon peeked out from behind some trees, lighting their way and Tavera wrapped her small hands around the reins as well, wondering what the next town held for them.