Part two of my pulp serial. Read my introduction and Part 1 here.
My earliest memory can hardly be called a memory. It's just a smell, really, one you can still get a good whiff of if you go down past the docks, past the rows of ramshackle but spotless houses where the dock hands and net weavers and fisherman and their wives live - salt air, fish stew, and tar, at once pungent and fresh.
I was five when my parents were killed. I was too young to understand what was going on, and by the time I was old enough to find out for myself, people had moved on, oscillating out of that area of the city, or out of the city entirely. From what I gather, though, the docks were firebombed - a random outburst of violence, not uncommon in those days - and both of them were caught up in it. My parents were both immigrants to Old Arien, and since there was no family around to take me in, one of the neighbors took care of me for a while. And when they decided they had too many mouths to feed as it was, they sold me to one of the gangs.
I was lucky, actually - I ended up with a gang of the thieves, run by a harsh, clever old bird who put a premium on nimble little fingers that could dip in and out of a purse or pocket undetected, and sweet little faces that might soften a heart long enough to make a getaway.
When Ma Taterro bought me, Lang had already been a part of the gang for a few years. If he wasn't the best, he was one of the boldest. Utterly fearless, pinching from the rich and poor alike; careless, but so fast on his feet that somehow he always managed to stay a step or two ahead of the cops or the toughs. I wouldn't have survived a week without him, and not just because he taught me the trade. There was something fierce and joyful inside of him, even underneath the grime and hunger and fear, and it was the only thing bright enough to penetrate the darkness that surrounded me.
I guess that's why I decided to help him, even after all the other shit that came later. A life for a life, you know? He saved me, once upon a time, and I still felt the weight of that debt in my soul.
So I took him to a little house by the docks, one that smelled like fish, and salt, and tar. It might have been the house where a five year old girl lived with her parents before they were killed; I honestly don't know. The woman who lived there was big, with wiry gray hair and a face like an anvil. She lived quietly, and was neither friendly nor unfriendly, and no one ever wondered if she had bought the house herself, or if someone was paying her to live there. They also didn't wonder if a flagstone might be moved aside to access an underground room, which had been quietly excavated over the course of a few years, or if that underground room might itself lead to an ancient, largely forgotten aqueduct that emerged nearly a mile from the city.
Thank the listening gods for incurious neighbors.
Lydia was sitting by the fire reading some well-thumbed tome when we came in out of the blustery night. She nodded to me silently, but a faint frown creased her face when she caught sight of Lang behind me, collar up and hat pulled low over his eyes.
She stood and, without speaking, levered up the flagstone with the poker from the fireplace. Lang bent down, peering into the darkness, and I couldn't resist giving him helping boot in the ass.
"After you," I chirped, shoving him through.
True, he might have broken his neck, but any feelings I had for him only meant I wasn't going to let someone else kill him; I wasn't above doing the deed myself.
I jumped after him and took the lit lamp Lydia handed down to me. He was still sprawled on the ground, groaning about his wrist, but without a wellspring of sympathy of feed his self-pity, he piped down and found his feet.
"What the hell was that about? And why do you have a medieval fucking dungeon under your house?" He sounded pissed - good.
"What that was about was you dragging me into this mess. You're lucky I don't do everyone a favor and string you up myself. And this isn't a dungeon, it's a bolt hole, which is exactly what you asked me for."
"It's a literal hole in the ground. There isn't even a toilet!"
I pointed to the bucket in the corner, and only just contained a gleeful laugh at the look of disgust on his face.
He signed and sat down on the low slung cot. "So I'll be twiddling my thumbs and pissing in a bucket for the next few days? I do get to eat, right?"
"Not if you keep going with this attitude. If you stop acting like you thought I was going to set you up somewhere with silk sheets and naked ladies feeding you grapes, I might be able to convince Lydia up there to pass you down a crust of bread a couple of times a day."
He swallowed whatever smartass remark he was planning on coming back with next and looked around. It wasn't a large room - the ceiling, or rather, the floor of the room above, was only about six feet high, and the room was maybe ten feet by twenty feet. The walls were shored up with whatever I could get my hands on, including lots of old brick, cracked flagstones, and big, smooth river rocks. There was a column in the middle constructed of brick daubed over with cement, which I'd thought prudent. It wouldn't due to have the house fall in. Disguised by one of the larger stones was the entrance to the tunnel that led to the aqueducts, but I didn't think he needed to know about that just yet.
"So, why do you even have a place like this?" he asked, and I could hear the tint of genuine curiosity in his voice.
"That's a long story, Lang, and I don't have time to tell it right now. Lydia will give you food and water a couple of times a day, and she'll empty your bucket when it gets too ripe. You shouldn't hear anyone upstairs but her, but if you do, just stay quiet. I'll be back in a couple of days to let you know what's going on."
I pulled myself up out of the hole and Lydia quickly pulled the stone back into place. Brushing the grime from my hands, I gave her a nod, and slipped silently back out into the night.