Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)(9)

It’s too loud to hear much, but he just bows and gestures me to my table, then scurries off to fetch drinks. I take my time on the way across the room, looking over the regulars for anyone out of place. I get a few quiet nods, and offer a few in return. The majority of the crowd are honest folk, at least in theory. Sailors, dockworkers, fishermen. But here and there are thugs, prostitutes, thieves, and killers. My people.

When I sit, Hagan takes himself elsewhere. It’s a small table, with just one other chair across from me. It’s not long before someone takes a seat, a plump, well-dressed woman who’s sweating freely through her too-thick makeup. She stares at me for a while, throat working nervously. I sigh.

“Spit it out,” I tell her. “Or else go have some more drinks until you work up the nerve.”

“Right,” she says. “Sorry. It’s just … sorry. I…” Then she pauses again, and I want to scream.

People. I don’t rotting know how to talk to people.

But it’s expected in my position. As long as the gold keeps trickling upward, I’m in the clear with my bosses, but there’s a little more to it than breaking heads. As ward boss, people want to ask me for favors, or to adjudicate disputes, or beg me to cut them a break, just one more week, swear to the Blessed. I’d heard every story a hundred times over before I was fourteen, but I still make time to sit and listen. A little goodwill goes a long way. People are more likely to tell you things, or clam up when the Ward Guard pokes around.

That doesn’t mean I don’t sit and fantasize about doing horrible things to them while they blather on. I swear, if one more shopkeeper tries to tell me that he’s behind on his payments because his grandmother is ill, I’m going to carve him and the old lady into chunks.

The well-dressed woman is here to ask me to find her daughter, who’s working in one of the dockside brothels. Mom thinks she was captured by slavers, but my guess is the girl just ran off on her own. I promise her I’ll look into it. I’m not in the business of returning runaways, but if she is being held against her will some brothel-keeper will need sorting out. Keeping slaves is illegal in Kahnzoka, and one of the few things likely to bring the Ward Guard down on all our heads.

I don’t get any sick grandmothers, but there’s a couple of bad backs and a fishing boat swamped in a storm. By the ragged state of the fisherman, his story is probably true, but I make a mental note to visit the others unexpectedly and make sure they know my patience isn’t infinite. There’s also a shopkeeper whose place was rolled by a gang from the Fifteenth Ward, which I’ll complain about to the appropriate authorities, and a young prostitute who claims his client skipped out without paying.

“Who was he?” I ask the boy, a pretty little thing in soft silks.

“Some aristo.” He snorts and tosses his long hair, a move I’m sure wins him many a customer. “Toyara something.”

“A little detail would be useful,” I tell him. “Find out his full name and send me a note. I’ll have someone look into it.” I will, too. It’s bad enough when highborn parasites come down to the Sixteenth Ward to slum it, but if they start getting the idea they don’t have to pay, it’s going to cause problems for everyone.

After a few hours of this, I’m itchy and bored. The heat is stifling, and I’ve already loosened the collar of my kizen as far is it will go. Breda’s beer is barely chilled when fresh, and not strong enough to even give me a fuzzy head. After another shopkeeper bows his way out, swearing that he’ll pay any day, I decide I’ve had enough. Hagan rises from his own table and meets me on the way to the door.

“Getting on your nerves already?” he says, grinning.

“They were getting on my nerves an hour ago,” I mutter. “I’m half a minute from kicking someone in the balls just to liven things up.”

Still, once we step out the front door, I’m feeling good. The glow of Tori’s company, of seeing the life I’ve built for her, step by painful step, is still with me. And now that I’m finished at Breda’s I can get out of the damned kizen.

The sun is sliding down to meet the ocean, tinging the waterfront with orange. The docks are crowded, workers and sailors coming off shift and flowing up into the city, regular as the tides that float the ships. That flow, up to the wineshops, gambling dens, and brothels of the Sixteenth Ward, is what keeps us all alive. It pays for Tori’s house and Ofalo’s salary. The city breathes, in and out, and I feel it in my own chest. Kahnzoka may be halfway to the Rot, but it’s my city.

“Where to?” Hagan says.

“Bleak Street.” It’s another of my hideouts, just a cheap room in a tumbledown building at the district’s edge, but it has the virtue of spending the day in the shadow of the walls. “I need to get out of this rotting heat.”

He nods and falls in. I stop at a street stall for dinner—fried gripper and chestnuts, wrapped in old rag paper. I eat as we walk the rest of the way, tearing apart the flaky fish with my fingers and blowing on it when it’s too hot to touch. I’ll take Sixteenth Ward street food over the “cultured” stuff they serve at Tori’s every time. Except that plum juice. They get that right.

The apartment at Bleak Street is on the second floor, up a rickety exterior staircase. Hagan pauses at the bottom, and I wad up the paper from dinner and toss it in the gutter.

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