The dice were cast. Though the tavern was as crowded, bordering on overcrowded and as noisy as it ever got, Leo heard the clatter as they bounced across the table very clearly. Being under the table probably helped but he would have thought that it was thick enough to stop the noise from getting through so clearly. Maybe there was something about the table that... what was the word he had heard again... magnified. Maybe there was something about the table that made the sound of the dice louder. And maybe it was loudest where he was now. In the darkest spot. Right under the middle of the table.
He lifted the bowl to his mouth and he tipped the last remnants of the watery scumgullion down his throat. It was the first hot meal he'd had in... well, that didn't bear thinking about. It might be a long time before he got another. Lifting a purse that contained golden crowns meant Perfidy had actually let him keep some of the silver for himself. And silver meant stew at the Three Shovels. That had been his... policy... for as long as he had remembered. Everybody said that the scumgullion at the Three Shovels was the best in Ongus. Often remarking that even the best scumgullion was still scumgullion, but Leo liked the taste of it. The richness of the chewy meat, and the bitterness of the turnips. If he ever had gold he could call his own he would not eat scumgullion, but with silver, scumgullion was what he would choose to eat.
He ran his finger around the inside of the bowl and licked it until all he could taste was finger. And then he did it again. And again. There was nothing left. But as long as he stayed under the table, he could probably stay inside in the warm until chucking out time. He wouldn't be easily noticed there. The shadows hid him well enough. It also meant less bumping about by bigger people and almost everybody was bigger than Leo was. Bumping was good outside in the streets, where it made it easier for you to get away with somebody's purse. But doing that inside the Three Shovels would be a big mistake. He might have only been welcome in there when he had silver to spend, but at least he was welcome then. Besides that – he would not have been at all surprised if the people who owned and worked in the tavern knew how old he was, and that meant he had to be very careful not to be caught stealing here. It was a pity – there was a purse that looked to be made of something like red velvet, hanging from the belt of somebody at the table, and a purse made of such a thing suggested wealth inside. So did the ornate dagger at his side. No. Best not to be tempted. Think of something else.
The dice were still clattering, and he sat up, reaching up to feel the bottom of the table. Was it unusually thin in the middle? Why did the noise seem so loud? It was almost like... occasionally, only occasionally, but more often now than it used to happen, when he found himself looking at purses hanging from peoples belts, occasionally he found himself seeing the purse much more clearly than he had before – as other things he could see seemed to fade into the background. When that happened – as it had happened today with the purse of gold and silver – he knew, he somehow knew – that this time he would get that purse, no questions, no risk. Now the dice were clattering far louder than they should, and the other noises of the tavern seemed to be fading away. Was he supposed to steal the dice – well, not supposed to, obviously nobody was supposed to steal, though what choice did you have sometimes... He looked around and saw with clarity a hand dart under the table to the red velvet purse – by the angle the owner's own hand, and he saw very clearly as the hand reached into a tiny pocket on the purse and drew out a dice, placing a dice from within the purse in its place. It was a smooth and... dextrous... motion. The hand withdrew back above the table.
Leo's eyes shot around looking at the legs of the other men at the table, and the long skirt of a woman too. He knew who they belonged to – some of them were honest people, local people, that he saw everyday. The type of people who could not afford to be cheated out of money by a man who wore a jeweled dagger and a red velvet purse. He pushed himself out through the largest gap he could see, and grabbed the edge of the table with his right hand to pull himself up. He had the wooden bowl in his left hand, and as the dice clattered across the table, he slammed it down to cover them.
“That man is cheating.” He announced to a suddenly nearly silent common room that seemed to be full of people staring at him.
The man tried to stand and the man next to him put a hand on his shoulder. “Stay down, Master, if you don't mind.” This was Borgen, a local carpenter, and a strong and powerful man. The well dressed man with the velvet purse was much smaller, but as he looked at Leo, Leo realised that he seemed much more dangerous than Borgen. Borgen spoke. “Leo, you'd better be very sure. I've got nine florins in that pile on the table and this gentleman needed to roll a double six to beat me, and you've just wrecked that bet. And calling a man a cheat is one of the worst insults there is besides.”
The man with the velvet purse spoke. He had an accent – Algandarve – but also a very smooth voice. “Leo...” he said the name in a tone dripping with malice. “...is quite correct. Little point in me denying it. My dice are trapped under that bowl he has in his left hand.” People started murmuring and standing up at other tables. Behind the bar, the bartender reached for a length of wood. The Algand looked around. “I suggest you take my purse and give it to the barman and it pays for drinks for everybody in this establishment until the money is gone. And I walk out of here.”
Borgen let him stand, and took his purse and opened it to look inside. “Aye. I think we can agree to that. But you'd better not come back here, Master Cheat. And I don't just mean this tavern. I wouldn't come back to the southern sides.”
The man walked to the door. “I will consider your advice, Master Carpenter. But if I come back, I will certainly make sure young Leo isn't here.” He walked out.
Borgen threw the purse over to the barman. “Keep serving till that's all spent. And give young Leo here another bowl of your best scumgullion. And one more each evening for the rest of the week.” He looked at Leo. “You really do need feeding up, lad. A boy your age shouldn't be so small.”
Leo knew he'd been right as usual. People here did know how old he was. Maybe he should ask them for the information.
He lifted the bowl, and looked at the dice. They were facing up – two sixes. He looked at them carefully. They seemed to be entirely normal dice... if there was some trick to them, he had no idea what it was. Why had the foreigner given up so easily? Either he had not been cheating, or if he had been, he probably could have bluffed it out unless somebody else could see something that Leo couldn't. A bowl of scumgullion was placed on the table next to him, and he took it back under the table. He probably did not need to hide at this point to stay in the tavern, at least until the money ran out, but he felt more comfortable there.
It was nearly dawn and the dawn at this time of year came late, when he found himself, bone tired and a little dizzy, but also stuffed with porridge paid for by somebody else, climbing down the stairs into the riverside hovel that he supposed he had to call his home, because it was the place he normally slept. The money from the cheat's purse had outlasted most of the drinkers but Arkamus, the landlord of the Three Shovels had insisted on closing for at least a couple of hours and so everybody had been dispersed. As he pushed his way past the sacking that passed for a door, he could see Perfidy fussing over a pile of sticks and trying to coax a small fire. She looked up at him and opened her mouth to tell him what she thought of him. He raised a finger to stop her, then reached inside his tunic and pulled out the two loaves of day old bread that they had let him take away from the kitchen of the Three Shovels. Her mouth stayed open as she stared at it.
“Did you have to put it inside your tunic?” she finally said. “When was the last time you had a wash?”
“Yes, I did. Or it would have been taken off me. And I went in the river only about a week ago. Upriver too.”
“Thank God for small mercies, then. Wake up the others.”
He went over to where everybody else was sleeping in a pile in the corner, and began shaking them awake. There were four of them. All like him. All young enough to be reasonably safe from the consequences of picking pockets for a living. All old enough to be good at it. Perfidy was the closest thing they had to a... big sister. She thought she was fifteen, but it was hard to be sure, just as Leo thought he was probably ten. Dolly inkerpacks. King's law didn't let them hang you, nor officially do anything else to you until were seven, and so you stayed under seven as long as possible if you had to live they way they lived. They didn't hang many seven year olds either, but being sent to the work gangs, or a proper flogging was bad enough – and even if they weren't likely to hang you, why risk it? Don't turn seven until you bloody well had to. Perfidy had made it until she thought she was twelve, partly by pretending to be a boy for a couple of years – people expected boys to be bigger, even when they weren't. And she said there were other good reasons not to be a girl too, but she wouldn't say what they were. Now there was no way that anybody would ever believe she wasn't seven – or twelve for that matter - but she'd been smart and worked out another way of getting by. She took care of her little canting crew, making sure they ate as well as they could on what they could bring in. She took the lion's share and kept it safe for the times when they couldn't get enough. She also tended them when they were sick as well as she could – and in the winter that could happen quite a bit. In the three years that Leo had been with her, she'd only lost one of the people she looked after to sickness. Most real mothers did not do so well. Not on the southern sides especially.
Everybody crowded around the tiny fire, as Perfidy carefully broke up the bread into six as equal chunks as possible. It was her ritual with shared food, and Leo did not think it as fair as she did. She was bigger than them, she needed more, but he knew she'd take the smallest share she could. She was getting thinner. He pulled out the dice.
“This is my bread. I brought it home. So I decide who gets which share.”
Perfidy looked at him. “Do you think you're in charge?”
“I am today.”
She shook her head slightly. “I'm too hungry to argue. Just don't you go getting too big for your boots. If you had boots. Or your breeches. If you had breeches.”
“You're lucky I don't. I could have stuck the bread down them.” Leo looked around and pointed to each in turn. “You're one.... two... three... four... five... six.” He took the dice in his hand. “When I roll the dice, and your number comes up, you take the piece of bread you want. Everybody gets one piece. If I roll a number twice, I'll reroll. Got it?”
He looked at them. Jarrow had been sick and coughing. He was number two and Leo hoped he could roll a two first – the bread wasn't even despite Perfidy's efforts. Maybe he should have nicked a knife... that jewelled dagger would have been nice. He rolled the dice. It came up two, and Jarrow reached for the largest piece. Good. Perfidy had got five. It would be good if five came up next, because she really was looking thin. He rolled. It was a five. Perfidy reached forward... and took the smallest piece. He rolled again. Another five. He rolled again. Another five. He rolled again. Another five.
“Somebody really wants you to have another piece, Perfidy,” he said, knowing that there was no way that would happen.
She glared at him. “Keep rolling.”
Well – Nodar who had been given number three, was probably the next most needy. And Leo rolled a three. Leo paused... this was odd... he looked at the dice carefully. “Come on, roll,” said Baltar, who had been counted as number one, demanded in a sharp whine, and in annoyance, Leo thought 'four', very deliberately, and the dice came up four, so the next piece went to Roalf. And then he rolled a one, so that Baltar took the second last piece.
The piece that was left was quite small. And it was his. He picked it up, and quickly slipped it under his shirt, as the others wolfed down their food.
Perfidy stood up. “Right – Nodar, you need to go down Pinter's Wharf. Baltar, round behind the Slaughteryards. Jarrow, you stay close to home – keep to the docksides. Roalf, I need you down the fruit market – and if you can't get money, bring home some apples or something else. Bring 'em home anyway. Leo, you take Cutter's lane. And you see any good sticks, any of you, bring them home. We'd need wood. It's getting colder.”
Leo waited till the others had left, then pulled the chunk of bread from out of his tunic. “Perfidy.”
She turned and he threw it to her. She barely caught it – which shocked him. She rarely missed a beat. She stared at it.
She stared at him, and began to walk towards him. “Leo, you'll eat this bread unless you want the hiding of your life. We don't waste food. And we don't take more than our share.”
He backed away. “I had two bowls of scumgullion last night, Perfidy, and a full bowl of porridge this morning. I waited till the others were gone, because I won't argue with you in front of them. But you've got to eat that bread. Give me a hiding if it makes you feel better. But if something happens to you... you've got to eat that bread.”
He pushed past her. “Please. Eat the bread.”
She called after him, but he did not look back. Perfidy would eat the bread now. She would not let it go to waist and he had made a good argument once she had time think about it. She had to keep herself healthy, so she could keep the rest of them healthy.
It was a cool day. Autumn seem to have arrived over the previous week. He was not looking forward to the winter. Last winter he had managed to buy – he'd actually gone up northern sides to the good markets – a pair of stout woolen hose and a tunic with long sleeves, but by the end of winter he'd grown enough that he could barely get them on and he knew that Perfidy had them packed away for Jarrow, because he'd grown even more since then. Could he still pass for under seven? That was a thought he'd been pondering for a few weeks now. He'd asked Perfidy her opinion and she'd looked him over really closely and said that she thought he could, especially with his clothes off and as long as he didn't talk, but he had his doubts. A while ago – about the start of last Autumn so it must have been a year ago now – he'd actually been arrested and dragged up to Oldfort, the city prison and thrown into the cells. He'd managed to convince the Gaoler he was only six or convince him enough that he'd let him go at least, but it had been a near run thing. It wasn't the only time he'd ever been caught, but on the other occasions the person who'd caught him had taken what he'd stolen and given him a hiding. Everybody knew a thief could hang and most people seemed to understand that the thieving urchins of Ongus were just doing what they had to do. Once you were old enough to get honest work, you were expected to do that, but until then, if you didn't have parents, you didn't have much choice. He was lucky enough to have Perfidy. He knew he must have had a mother ad Perfidy said he must have had a father too, but he could not remember either of them. Not at all.
He'd been told to go to Cutter's Lane for the day, and that was a good choice – it marked a boundary road between two parishes and was lined with stalls that sold a range of goods and so he headed in that direction. He had to walk back past the Three Shovels to get there and that brought dice back into the front of his head – not that they had gone far away. He'd rolled the number he'd been thinking about every single time. That was... he did not know a word that mean almost impossible because it probably wasn't actually impossible. But it seemed a lot more unlikely than unlikely.
He reached inside into one of the pouches he'd sewn inside his tunic and drew out the two dice. He ducked into the alley by the side of the tavern and rolled one of them on top of a barrel thinking 'Three'. It came up 'Five'. He rolled it again thinking 'Four'. It came up 'Two'. When he thought 'One' it did come up 'One' but then it came up 'One' again the next time when he was thinking 'Six'. He picked up the other dice and thought 'Three' and it came up 'Three'. He thought 'Five' and it came up 'Five'. He thought 'Six' and it came up 'Six.' It worked with this dice but not the other. He picked it up and stared at it and then carefully compared it to the other. They both seemed more or less identical. He rolled the dice that did what he wanted – the thought of 'four' became a roll of 'four', and then he picked up the cube again, considered, and as he rolled it he thought 'Seven!'
His head exploded with pain as if somebody had hit him with a hammer. It actually drove him to his knees, and he knelt there retching in the alley, fighting to keep whatever was inside him was inside him. It took a minute for the pain and nausea to pass. He stood up and picked up the dice.
There were seven dots on one of its sides. He checked the other sides. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven... Seven sides. But it was still cube shaped. All right. Impossible was the right word for this. But it had happened.
This was a magic dice. It really was a magic dice. And his blood ran cold at that thought. Magic was... dangerous. Very dangerous. People feared it. A powerful Sorcerer was safe enough of that fear, but a boy with magic in his hands... no wonder the man last night had been willing to concede so readily that he was a cheat. If people had known he was using magic to win...
Leo came very close to throwing the dice down a drain – given them to the ancient sewers under the city left behind by the Empire. But... yes, they were dangerous. But they also had to be valuable. Possibly very valuable. If he could work out what to do with them.
For now, he decided that he had to attend to more urgent matters. Perfidy was going to be annoyed at him for standing up to her, and the best way to deal with that was to bring home some coin. He headed up to Cutter's Lane, and by the middle of the day, he had lifted two purses from comfortable looking people. He had over 20 florins, and nearly twice as many pennies. No gold today, but gold was rare in the areas they worked in. Cutter's Lane was a prosperous shopping area by the standards of the southern sides, but that certainly didn't make the people who shopped there rich. Just people who wouldn't be put at risk of starvation or serious deprivation by losing a purse. That mattered to Leo – or at least he pretended it did. When he was honest, he would admit that he'd steal from a poor person if he had to, and he didn't know them well, but he tried to avoid getting into that situation.
The sun had come out during the morning and it was warmer now. He had a more than decent amount of money for the day, and he had a feeling – just a feeling – that made him a little uncomfortable about staying in the market of Cutter's Lane. He knew to trust his instincts. Maybe somebody was watching him – you never looked around to check. And the dice were still worrying him. He decided to head to the northern sides. There were things he could do there.