The smell of rotting fish and plankton rankled at Ethry’s nostrils as he scrambled over the wet planks, dodging between the lumbering dockworkers. A couple men shouted angrily as the urchin ran between their tree trunk legs, but Ethry was always gone by the time they could try and make a grab at him.
All around him, he heard the buzz of commerce, of industry at work. Crates were in constant motion; some descended down gangplanks and were lowered by cranes onto the ships, ready to go to the far corners of the Empire. Other crates came off the ships, hauled by cranes or on the shoulders of burly dockworkers, deposited in stacks on the wharf and smelling of exotic locations that Ethry could only imagine.
Up ahead of him, a heavy-set man with a large beard cursed in half a dozen languages as his foot caught at a raised plank in the dock. He tripped, and the crate on his shoulder sent oval, pink fruits scattering across the salt-warped boards.
Ethry didn’t pause to help pick up the fruits. His good deed, he knew, would at best be rewarded with a grunt of thanks, and nothing more. More likely, he’d earn himself a kick or a cuff about the ear, along with some more curse words to add to his vocabulary.
Instead, he hurried by without pausing. Only after he’d ducked down into a narrow alley between two buildings, away from the scene, did he grin and remove the two pink fruits from his jacket that he’d snagged off the ground as he passed.
“Quick hands, eh?”
Ethry jumped at the voice, drifting lazily out of the alley’s darkness. His hand flew down to his belt, where an iron dagger rested, as he stared into the alley’s dim interior.
“Eh, there’s no need for that, lad.” The unseen speaker chuckled. “Not that it would help you, of course.”
That sounded bad. Ethry pulled the dagger out, but even as he drew it from his belt, something whistled past his ear. He froze, his eyes panning over even as his head held perfectly still.
The two pink fruits were no longer in his hand. Both of them were pinned to the wooden wall beside him, two needle-thin daggers pinning them in place. One of those daggers had sunk into the wood only an inch or so from his ear.
“Relax, boy,” the voice from the darkness said, its tone rich with humor. Looking forward, Ethry saw a darker figure stepping forward, out from the shadows that previously masked it. “I’m not here to take your life. You’d never have seen or heard me, were that the case.”
“Then what?” Ethry finally managed to find his voice. He glared at the figure, trying to mask his fear with anger. “What you want, then? I ain’t got no money!”
“Obviously,” the voice replied, and he could practically hear the man rolling his eyes. “And it’s ‘haven’t,’ by the way, not ‘ain’t.’ Proper grammar is important.”
“Only if yer a toff,” Ethry said dismissively. The figure was closer. A man, one in dark leathers, although with a red sash knotted around his waist. He was almost close enough for Ethry to catch him with a lunge, but his fingers didn’t reach towards his dagger. Something about the man’s easy confidence assured the urchin that any attempt at violence was a very bad idea.
“Do you not want to be a ‘toff,’ as you say?” A hand reached past Ethry, plucking the daggers, and their impaled fruits, free of the wall. The man regarded Ethry with twinkling eyes from beneath his hood as he stowed the daggers in a single, swift motion, hiding them somewhere on his person. “Live a life of leisure, always have money? Pay others to do your dirty work?”
Ethry considered the question for a moment. “Nah. Money’s nice, but I don’t want no one doing my stuff for me.”
The man laughed. “A good answer,” he replied, and something spun through the air. Without thinking, Ethry caught it, and his hands closed on the soft flesh of one of the fruits.
“And fast hands, too,” the man added, punctuating his words with a crunch as he bit into the skin of the other fruit. “So, here’s the crux of it, boy. You want a job?”
Ethry only needed to consider the question for a moment. He’d never been hired this way, but he’d worked plenty of jobs, and he knew that they always brought opportunity. Even if his employer didn’t pay, Ethry always had ways of making sure that he came out ahead.
For just a second, he curiously eyed that red sash around the man’s waist. Did that signify something? It held the look of a uniform, but he’d never seen it before. Still, he wasn’t going to spit in the eye of an opportunity.
“Yeah, I’ll do a job,” he gave in, biting into the fruit in his hand.
The man laughed again. A rich laugh, an honest one, Ethry decided. “Good choice. This way, boy.”
As the man led the urchin further down the alley, his free hand drifted away from the hidden blade hidden in the concealed sheath on his back. The urchin said yes, so he’d continue to live. If he’d turned down the job, on the other hand…
Well, he’d definitely made the right choice for his own self-interest in staying alive.