I ran, crashing wildly through the crowd. Snarls and growls followed in my wake – what’s a few trampled toes and elbowed faces? – I was too intent on my goal to pay them any mind. I reached the spot where I’d seen her and spun round in desperation.
“Where’d she go?” I shouted, frantically. I threw myself into a nearby cluster of people, certain she must be hiding amongst them.
“Watch yourself, mate,” said one of the surly men as I broke through.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and screamed into his face: “The girl. Did you see her?” With a stunned expression, he dumbly shook his head.
“What girl?” said a less easily fazed member of the crew.
“She was right over there! She has these… eyes.” I floundered. Their blank faces told me I sounded as mad out loud as I did in my head. I shoved past them and into a new stream of people.
“Slow down, twpsyn!”
A tug on my coat had me stumbling. Another step and I was flat on my face. I groaned, little sparks of pain igniting in my wrists and knees. Small but heavy work boots came level with my face, and then Ang’s piercing grey eyes came into view.
“Ye want a hand up, gwas?”
“Please,” I mumbled.
She walked out of sight, and began to kick me in the side. “Get up,” she said. “Get up, get up, get up.”
“Ouch, stop that.” I picked myself up, and rubbed what was probably a blossoming bruise.
“What you chasin’ after, anyways?”
I scanned the swarming crowd distractedly. “That woman. The thief. You know.”
Ang looked confused for a moment, then my words sunk in. “Where?” she hissed. “Wait ’til I get my hands on that light-fingered ast.”
There were too many people. You could have your eyes trained on one figure and lose sight of it in an instant. It’s the kind of crowd I usually love: easy to hide in.
Like currents in a river, people meander around markets in streams, weaving in and out and creating eddies where the two opposing courses meet. The best traders are islands and the currents move around them, even if the island decides to go for a walk.
People knocked my shoulders as they pushed by. I’m more of a pebble than an island. But the lady with the quiet eyes, she might as well be a grain of sand.
I laid a hand on Ang’s bristling shoulders. “We’re not going to find her now. It’s too easy to disappear here.”
“Well, we’ll un-disappear her,” Ang seethed. “We’ll make her regret–”
“Later, Ang. Let’s go back to the stall, make some money. We’ve got three days here, and plenty of people to speak to. Someone will know about her.”
“Y’reckon?” she said, doubtfully.
In truth my sense of self preservation had just caught up with me. Chasing after that woman? Was I mad? We already knew from past experience that she must be powerful – she had the ability to hide from scrying stones and she’d bested a big old shellycoat on its home turf. I’d sworn off further attempts to try and locate her. Not worth it.
“She might have a reputation,” I said, despite myself. “People with reputations incur a lot of gossip.”
“Like that Mercer.”
“Yes, like– What do you mean?”
“Heard others tellin’ tales about him. When I was looking o’er his goods and saw mine own bluecaps there. Lots o’ gossip about him, it seems. What’s his reputation?”
“None worth talking about,” I muttered. “C’mon, let’s go.” I steered her back the way we’d come. Her boots thumped on the tiles as she kept pace. She tugged insistently on my coat.
“I hate ‘im much as you, gwas. But I wants t’know what sort o’ man he is. Can’t size up an enemy based on size alone. Is he known t’be a thief?”
I considered this, reluctantly. “Sort of,” I decided. “Look, I’m not saying any of this is true, but they say he’s stolen all sorts of impossible things from impossible places.”
“Oh, I don’t know. They say he’s been to the underworld and wrestled treasures from the jaws of Cerberus. They say he’s played dice with gods and won; he’s eaten fey food and lived to tell the tale. He’s caught wild nightmares bare-handed and apparently ridden every type of supernatural horse you can imagine, even a feral hippocamp, and I’ve no idea how he managed to breathe underwater to do that. They say he can acquire anything you desire, whether it’s dragon-guarded gold or a lock of Samson’s hair, no challenge has bested him yet. You see? Complete bastard.”
Ang glanced at me sidelong. “You wish ye were more like ‘im, eh, gwas?”
I stiffened. “Who would want to be a ponce like him? He’s arrogant, pretentious, manipulative, and… and have you seen his hat? It has a feather in it.”
“Not like you at all, then.”
I resisted the urge to throw a boot at her.
“I don’t want to be anything like him,” I said, half to myself. We reached our table, which remained right as I’d left it, happily untouched.
It’s an interesting thing about the Market, there’s a code of sorts. Everything is fair game if you’re out on the road. Woe betide you if you loudly proclaim that you’re travelling to such-and-such a place with such-and-such a valuable on your hands. You’re practically asking for the attention of thieves.
Different matter altogether at one of the big markets, like this one. Steal from a trader here and you risk the wrath of an entire mob falling upon you. A mob which has been drinking and looking for an excuse to have a fight, no less. Anywhere else, leaving your wares unattended is an invitation for thievery. Here, it just looks like a trap. No one is that stupid. Especially with so many watchful, suspicious eyes at every turn.
And the Regulators make up some of those pairs of eyes. These are the serious individuals in sombre grey suits, holding clipboards and asking penetrating questions. There are, if you can believe it, items that are banned from sale on the Black Market. It’s a very short but very dangerous list of things, and the Regulators make sure none of them turn up at the Market.
At least, they don’t turn up for very long. Regulators have very direct methods. A long drop with a short stop, if you catch my meaning.
Nothing gets in the way of their job quite as much as uncontrolled violence, so they’re quick to nip situations – like thieving – in the bud. And it’s my fear of their direct methods that makes me think twice about stealing our bluecaps back from Edric Mercer. Unjust as the situation was, it was too risky to try anything here.
We could go after quiet-eyes, instead, I thought. Track her down, maybe find some leverage. There must be someone here who knows who she is.
I couldn’t believe I was thinking this.
Now if only I could remember what she looked like.
Next to me, Ang yawned and smacked her lips loudly. “How long we gunna be at this, gwas?”
I checked my watch. Half past two in the morning.
“People will probably start bedding down in about five hours.” I grinned at Ang’s disbelieving expression. “It’s a nocturnal market, Ang. People have travelled a long way to get here: everyone wants to mingle and drink and party.”
“I notice you ain’t mingling.”
I pretended not to hear and busied myself with re-arranging the bottles on the table. Customers, that’s what I wanted. A good distraction to stop me from stewing over the fact that somewhere in this crowd was a thief, and that thief had given my property to Edric bloody Mercer.
“Myttin da, friends,” said a voice, apparently from nowhere. “Down here.”
I peered over the table and saw a pointy-eared man, almost three feet tall. He wore a grimy hard-hat with a flashlight attached, and equally grimy overalls. He cracked a friendly smile and stuck out a hand.
“Name’s Goron. Da yw genev metya genes!” It took me a moment to realise he was speaking primarily to Ang. She stared at his outstretched hand with bewilderment, and then shook it, uncertainly. “Pyth yw dha hanow?” said the stranger. Ang looked at me for help; all I could do was shrug. I didn’t understand either. He looked at us, from one to the other. “A wodhes’ta kewsel Kernewek?”
“Sorry,” I began, “we don’t really understand…”
“Ye don’t speak Cornish?” he said, giving Ang a look of surprise.
She remained puzzled for just a moment longer, when it finally dawned on her. “Knocker,” she hissed, getting riled up all over again. “Thought ye were coblynau, I did.” She spat at his feet, for good measure.
He seemed quite taken aback by this. “Coblyn?” he said, aghast. “I heard ye’d all hid ye’selves away! We ‘aven’t heard from our kin in those parts fer years.”
“Do I look hid away, ye mwnci? Take those eyes and scratch ’em somewhere else.”
The knocker, far from looking insulted, actually appeared amused. He extended his hand once more. “Sorry for me brash introduction. I saw ye o’er by the bluecaps held by Mercer. He really steal them from ye?”
“Aye,” said Ang, angrily batting his hand away. “And it’s no business of yourn.”
“Cretinous, that is. ‘E should be strung up fer it. Especially for vexin’ such a handsome woman.”
“Ye have eyes as slick as slate, girl. Strong arms, like a real putter. And a feisty temper t’boot. I’d like t’ take ye fer a drink.” He doffed his hard-hat to her, leaving Ang wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Coblynau, spending all their time underground, naturally have a very pale complexion. The blush creeping up Ang’s cheeks was quite a brilliant contrast.
“Off with you, ye soft-headed ffwl!” she said.
“I think she means she’ll think about it,” I said, brightly. Ang shot me a dirty look.
Goron the knocker placed his hat back on his head at what he probably thought was a jaunty angle. He winked at Ang. “I’ll ask ye again tomorrow, lass. You’re the finest bal maiden I ever did see.”
He strutted off with a huge smile splitting his face in half.
“What’s a bal maiden?” Ang asked me, after a while.
“Dunno. Haven’t picked up any Cornish. I think bal might mean ‘mine’? You hear Knockers talking about home a lot and the word crops up.”
“You going to see him, you think?”
“No,” she replied, vehemently. “Not some nasty knocker.” She grew thoughtful for a moment. “Mind you, always thought knockers were s’posed to be ugly.”
“Don’t you know what they look like?”
“Everyone knows what knockers look like. Warty and long-nosed and fat like a ball o’ lard.”
“You both look very similar to me.”
“Twpsyn.” She grabbed a wrapped pasty and the flask of tea. “I’m going t’sleep in the car. Away from knockers and thieves and other nasties.”
I tossed her the keys and watched her slip away through the crowd. It was thinning out as people drifted towards the bars at the edges of the room. Probably Ang’s admirer was having a drink at one of them. It made me chuckle – I had told Ang that she was bound to see something here she’d never seen before.
* * *
By the leaden light of morning I had a headache and hadn’t found out a single thing about the lady-thief with the quiet eyes. I tried speaking to other traders, but quickly realised that it was going to be difficult to find information on a person you couldn’t even describe. The only thing I could pinpoint was the way her eyes looked. It bugged the hell out of me.
I slept fitfully through the daytime, wrapped in a blanket under my table in the massive warehouse. The Market never quite slept, but it did lower the volume from roar to hubbub, with a baseline of snoring all across the room.
When the sun dipped outside, it was our cue to return to business. The night brought with it a few late arrivals to the Market, and there was a burst of squabbling over what little space was left. One latecomer in particular caught my attention, and revived my hope of finding our thief.
“We’re going to seek professional help,” I told Ang.
“Thought you was the professional, gwas,” Ang snorted, mouth full of pastry. She’d found the best way to adjust to staying up all night was to eat constantly and drink endless cups of tea. I felt it was making her more irritable than usual. I hoped she wouldn’t discover coffee.
“Yes, well, sometimes even the professionals need professional help. To find our thief, we need a specialist.”
“Hah.” She sprayed crumbs over the table. I brushed them off with a grimace. “You said ye had ‘contacts’, gwas. None o’ these lot seem eager to be in contact wi’ ye, ‘cept this ‘ere Irish fella.” The Irish fella was Devin Tracey, who had taken to lounging by my stall when he wasn’t chasing not-quite human ladies into bed. I think he was fascinated by Ang (and I hoped it wasn’t for the same reason he was fascinated by other non-human ladies).
“I don’t see why you’re having so much trouble,” said Tracey, amiably. “You know she’s here. Do some proper detective work: ask around til you find someone that matches her description.”
I sighed. “That’s just the problem. I don’t have a description.”
“Oh, come on now. What does she look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Rubbish. What colour was her hair?”
“I don’t know.”
“You can say how long it was, at least? Cropped short? To her shoulders? Mohican?”
“I don’t know,” I said in frustration. “Tracey, it’s like she occupies this black hole in my head. There’s just empty space where she should be.”
He turned his attention to Ang. “How about you, little coblyn? You got a better memory than our friend, here?”
She slowed her chewing and looked thoughtful, and then confused. “I… remember her eyes,” she said. “Sort of, calm, like. Peaceful, I thought.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “It’s the one feature I can recall. I’ve started thinking of her as Quiet Eyes, actually.”
Ang nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. Buggered if I can remember anything else though.”
“You only noticed her eyes?” said Tracey, eyebrows raised. He rubbed his chin. “Must have been beautiful eyes. I’d like to help you find her, I really would.”
“Ye can’t do a worse job than this mwnci.”
“Look here, it isn’t my fault–”
“Aye, it never is.” She pointed an accusatory digit at me. “Yer too busy makin’ excuses to do any good, an’ too full o’ lies t’be worth anything. You told me ye could find my missing kin – and so far we gots nothing! Why would ye be any better at findin’ a thief? I bet you ain’t even looking. Too ‘fraid to find her.”
“I am not afraid,” I said, firmly, failing to convince myself of the lie. “So everyone’s going to stop criticising my abilities, and we’re going to talk to a specialist.” I stood up, grabbing Ang by the arm. “Watch the stall for me, Tracey. Won’t be long. Don’t give my stuff away to girls just because they’re pretty.”
“What about men?”
“Men can be pretty, too.”
“Don’t give my stuff away. Let’s go, Ang.”
The latecomer we were looking for was very easy to find among the mishmash of colours and shapes that made up the rows of traders. For a start, her pitch protruded higher than anyone else’s, and it stood out with bright reds, greens, and gold ornamentation. There’s also the fact that it was a caravan, which was pretty distinctive in itself.
A traditional horse-drawn Romani gypsy caravan, owned by one Reva Longley. The advantage of a caravan is that you have the upper hand when it comes to claiming territory, and Reva had muscled her way in-between a seller of enchanted perfumes and a carver of sentient woods. Her horse stood in the middle of the aisle, a peaceful, immobile giant, contentedly munching in its nosebag while the perfume seller argued with the wood carver over who would have to clean up the freshly deposited manure.
“We’re goin’ to a gypsy?” said Ang. “Them’s as bad as witches.”
“How would you know? You’ve never met one.”
“Heard stories,” she said, darkly.
There is an age-old stereotype that warns of gypsies placing curses on unwary travellers and anyone they generally take a dislike to. While gypsies might be well-versed in revenge magic, you wouldn’t buy it from Reva: her specialism lies more in the removal of enchantments than in the placing of them (fun fact: I hear she has a sister in the north with a bad temper and a talent for curses. Both sisters apparently make good money. Make of that what you will).
She’s also well-known for her spectacularly good eyesight. I mean, she doesn’t even have to unfocus to see a pixie – it’s just there, to her. And woe betide you if you try to lie to her face – your words are as transparent as glass. So, I reason, if there’s anyone that could see where our thief is hiding, it’s got to be Reva.
I hopped up the steps and rapped my knuckles on the gaudily painted wood.
We ducked through the curtain and into the dark, smoky interior. Incense, the rich and sweet scent of vanilla. Reva sat gracefully on the other side of a slim table, the smoke curling about her long black hair. She gazed at me with dark, soulful eyes.
“Reva.” I felt like bowing, but there wasn’t enough room; a respectful nod instead, then.
“Who is your friend?” Her eyes flicked to Ang by my side.
“’m Ang,” said the coblyn. She seemed a little awestruck. Most people are, when they meet Reva for the first time. She has a real talent for creating atmosphere, and this tiny room was full of it. Add in the billowing folds of satin that embraced her tawny skin, the small beads that caught the light around her naked neck, and the petite gold chain that glittered on her head… well, it was difficult to remember why you’d entered her caravan in the first place.
And she’d smile at you, and it would give you this lovely warm glow inside like suddenly you’re the luckiest person in the world to be at the centre of her attention for just this moment.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ang. And to see you again, Mr Hansard. What can I do for you?”
“Hm? Yes, right. I’d like your help. I was hoping you could help me find someone.”
I don’t know why, but I blushed. Maybe because Reva had a way of insinuating a whole lot while saying very little. “Yes. A thief, as it happens.”
“She has wronged you?”
“Very well.” She nodded to us, and we moved to take a seat on our side of the table. She held up a hand. “Fifty pounds, Mr Hansard.”
“That’s a shame. I thought you wished to do business?”
“Fifty.” She smiled, sweetly. “You are not in a position to haggle, am I right, Mr Hansard? You wish to find this woman?”
“I do,” I said, defeated. “Fifty.”
“Thank you. A girl needs to make a living.”
“You seem to be living pretty well already,” I said, eyeing up the gold leaf decoration inside the cabin.
“We will consult cards,” Reva declared, pulling out a pack.
“That tarot witchery?” said Ang, suspiciously.
“Tarot is for tourists.” She splayed the deck on the table. Every card was blank.
Ang stared at her incredulously. “How you meant to read ’em if there’s nothing there?”
Again, that sweet smile. “Practice.” She turned to me. “Do you have anything that has been in the possession of this woman?”
“Yes.” I rummaged in my coat pockets.
“Do we?” said Ang. “We haven’t met her properly or anything, how come you’ve got– Oh, I see.”
I proffered the bottled bluecap, the only one we had rescued from the clutches of the thief. I hoped it would be enough.
Reva passed her hands over it, closed her eyes, and nodded. It would be enough.
She shuffled the pack, and began to deal the cards one by one.
“So what’s she doing now?”
“Shush, Ang,” I said.
We watched in silence as each card was laid down, gradually filling the surface of the table. No mysterious marks or other signs appeared to us, but Reva leaned over and inspected them intently. A sharp intake of breath suggested she’d seen something we couldn’t. Her hand hovered over the card in question, and she extended one slender finger to tap it. She drew her hand away and looked up at us through her long lashes.
“You know she is here?”
“Yes. But I think she knows I know, and she’s hiding. I want a name, and anything else you can tell me.”
Reva’s features were unreadable, though I sensed she was mulling over her response. She knew something, all right.
Eventually she spoke, and I hated the answer: “Mr Hansard, you must not try to find this woman.”
She held up a finger, silencing me without a word.
“It goes very bad for you, I think, if you find her.”
“But why?” Reva hesitated, as if trying to decide how much to tell me. “I want my fifty pounds worth,” I said, petulantly.
“Then perhaps your money buys you protection, instead of information.”
I was gob-smacked. “I’m sorry, let me get this straight. You want me to pay you to tell me absolutely nothing, is that right? No deal, sister. No way.”
She pursed her lips and drew in a deep breath. “Then let me tell you this. She is not hiding. She does not fear you. She is bad news, and so are her associates. You should forget about her, Mr Hansard. She is out of your league.”
That got me. Like a punch in the gut.
“What associates?” said Ang. I’d all but forgotten she was beside me.
“You should be fearful of them.”
“We don’t know who they bloody are!” I snapped. “How can we stay away from someone we don’t bloody know? Stop wasting my time.” I snatched the bluecap up from the table. “We’re done here, Ang.”
“Wait,” said Reva, as we reached the door. There was clearly a battle inside her head, and it had spilled onto her delicate features. “Hansard… Have you heard of Baines and Grayle?”
Something clicked in the back of my mind, they were familiar words. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Now you have. And you should stay away.”
She looked at me kindly, and I recognised the look for what it was. It’s the look you give to a child that wants to go and play with the big kids on the swings. It’s a look that says, ‘you’re too little for that sort of thing’, and it made me feel small as hell.
Little fish, Mercer had called me.
I threw open the curtain and marched angrily out into the thronging masses. At first I marched without purpose, and then my feet took charge and turned me round towards the centre of the Market. And suddenly I knew exactly where I was going, and I was going there with the rage of the righteous on my side. I could hear Ang struggling to keep up, but she sounded muted, far away and drowned out by the blood boiling in my ears.
I clenched my fists and marched right up to Edric Mercer and his fancy table, right there in the very centre of the Market, right at the centre of everyone’s attention, just like he always is.
He caught sight of me, that smug, slightly amused smile sliding straight onto his face, and before I could think about it I had thrown the first punch.
The world went very loud and chaotic, and then totally black.