When Hurvus returned it was full dark. He’d obviously filled his skin while he was out. His hands had stopped trembling. He brewed a willow bark tea for the boy and forced it down his throat, then put some foul-smelling plaster on my cheek and a liniment on my hands. Then we ate, he and I. Black bread, clam soup from a clay pot, a quarter wheel of a young gray cheese. When it was plain that Kiel wasn’t going to be eating anything, Hurvus ate his share of the soup and more of the cheese as well, and wrapped the rest up in cleanish linen.
When he’d sucked the last crumbs from his graying beard, he looked up at me with those bloodshot, still-clever eyes of his and said “People looking for you. At the public house.”
I felt a knife of fear slide into my guts, but didn’t let it show.
“Do they know where to find me?”
“No. Not from me.”
“You still owe me two silver. Besides, didn’t like the look of ‘em. Or the smell.”
He shook his head. “No. Don’t know what. Don’t know what you’re into. Don’t want to be part of it.”
“We’ll be gone in the morning.”
He nodded his head, then stoked up the fire a bit. With the falling sun, the temperature was dropping. After a time he put the poker away, put a bottle of cheap stuff by his chair and settled in.
“What did they look like, these people who were looking for me?”
“Two of ‘em. One a bruiser, shaved head. The other a weaselly merchant type, expensive clothes, silk and ermine and lace. The both of ‘em smelled like the marshes. Were asking after a woman looked hard, maybe with an injured gutter boy, maybe alone.”
“Marshes, eh?” Smugglers? Who knew? “Did anyone else pipe up?”
“They weren’t offering a reward, only threats. People ‘round Hardside, they don’t pay much attention to such. Unless they got a personal stake.”
That much at least hadn’t changed. I sat and stared at the fire while he filled his pipe, thinking. They’d get around to checking bone-setters soon enough, whoever they were. Hurvus would be on their list. Best I moved on with Keil before dawn. I couldn’t just leave the kid. He didn’t know anything about me, but that wouldn’t stop them from beating him to death to find it out, most likely, if they had anything to do with the fire. And I still had questions to ask him. I had too many questions all around.
They must have set someone to watch Keil, else they wouldn’t have known I might be with him or that he was injured. That they didn’t know if I was still with him probably meant they’d lost track of us in the confusion following the explosion. In any case, they had the brains to search Hardside. Which was too bad, really. I prefer any possible enemy to be as stupid as mossy rocks.
Well, if they were looking for me low, and I wasn’t ready to face them, then I’d hie myself up on high. I had enough to take a room at one of the posh inns near the top of the Girdle. And I had enough to hire a few thugs of my own, if it came to it. I just didn’t want it to.
Mainly what I needed was information. There was too much going on, and I didn’t understand any of it.
I glanced over at Hurvus. He had nodded off in his chair, pipe gone out and dangling from his mouth. I gently nudged his chair with a boot tip, then harder when that had no effect. He sat up, snorting and blinking.
“I have a few questions. I'll give you gold if you can answer them.”
He wiped his eyes with a thumb. “I'll answer if I can.”
“You heard of anyone masquerading as Ansen lately, come back from the dead?”
He snorted. “Every year, it seems. The Syndic and his Council don't get any less popular as time goes on only because once you hit bottom, there's no further to go.
“So what's the story of the latest Ansen, then?”
“I honestly couldn't say, beyond slogans scrawled on walls. 'Return the people's power' and such like.”
“All right. What about the Child Robber?”
His face got a little hard. “Some monster's snatching children, has been for at least two years. They disappear, no sign, no clue left. And they disappear utterly. No bodies have been found. Makes me think slaver, but who knows? The marsh is frightening deep in places.”
I grunted. He wasn't wrong.
“If I wanted to find somebody, on the quiet, who's the best person to talk to?”
“The Hag; who else?”
“Kerf's crooked staff, she's still alive?” She'd been ancient when I was a girl, and more than half legend. But I knew where to find her. Everybody in Hardside knew where to find her. It made it easier to avoid her.
“Let me ask you a question,” Hurvis said. “Why do you want to know all this?”
I thought about it a long time before I answered him. Decided to be truthful, Kerf only knows why.“I was born and raised in Hardside, Hurvis. I know you know it; you can hear it in my speech as surely as I can hear it in yours.”
He nodded. “There's no mistaking the Hardside drawl, sure. Though yours has gone soft around the edges.”
“I've been away a long time, and coming back's not something I ever planned on doing,” I replied.
“So why have you? I know it's your business and none of mine, but if I were less of a wreck and managed to climb out, nor hells nor the dead gods could drag me back. But it's too late for the likes of me.” He took a swig from the bottle, as if to prove his point.
“I have a debt to pay,” I told him, “and the marker finally got called in.”
He looked over at me, and even drink-fogged, his eyes were keen. “You sit there in your raw silk trousers and doeskin tunic, carrying knives the like I've never seen except on noblemen who had no least clue how to use 'em properly, wearing boots that cost what most people make in a year, offering me gold to telly you what anyone would tell you for the time of day, and you tell me you came to Hardside to pay a debt? Don't talk rubbish. Whatever you are, however you made your moil, you could've sent somebody else to settle it.”
I shook my head. “It's not that kind of debt. And coin won't cover it.”
“What will, then?”
“I don't know. Maybe nothing. Maybe blood. Probably blood. Maybe my life.” Whatever Theiner needed, I owed. And would pay. And that, I finally admitted to myself, was why I hadn't wanted Holgren along.
He was quiet for a while. When he spoke, his voice was rough with drink, and with some obscure emotion. “I had a debt like that, once.”
I cocked my head. “How'd you settle it?”
He smiled, but there was nothing of humor in it, just some old, private pain. “I never did. Or I still am. Can't decide which it is anymore.” And he took a long, long drink from the bottle and stumbled off to his bed without another word.
I banked the fire and dug out a blanket from my pack, then went to sleep there on the floor, one of Holgren’s gift-knives in each hand.