Oliver knew he should let well enough alone; already the lining of his jacket was heavy with coin, and so were his boots. He could feel the warm metal sticking to his sweaty calves. He had been hastening back to the barn he usually slept in, where he could stash the day's return with his other meager supplies and then scuttle down to the beach to soak his feet in the cool water just a mile down the harbor. He easily had enough to keep him fed for a few days and still bribe the stablehand to let him alone in the hayloft where he had made his bed.
However, the sheer size of the man's purse was distracting, irresistible. Even if it were only filled with coppers, that would feed him for two weeks, easily. No man with a belt of that kind of workmanship would have a purse filled only with coppers though, and that left a variety of possibilities. Why, if they were all silvers, he could buy a horse. Golds? Two horses, easily! The thought was boggling; there was no way he could afford to keep a horse, but still, the idea of being able to pay the initial price was a heady concept.
And so, against his better judgment, Oliver found himself slipping around the side of the Drake's Nest, giving a quick sideways glance as he passed down the alley. The man with the purse was a towering figure, his dog-eared tricorner hat holding down a mass of dark, unruly hair that waved in the sea's light spring breeze. He wore the costume of a mariner: loose midnight blue breeches tied at the knee, a pale yellow shirt open at the neck with sweeping sleeves tied off at the wrists. Despite his seafarer's garb, the dark wool coat slung over his left arm was dusty, and so were his stockings--as if he had been traveling over dry land. Oliver was slightly puzzled, for even if a sailor had taken to the land it had been raining for weeks, but he doubted where the man had been recently would have any bearing on how quickly he could cut his purse loose.
The Drake's Nest's porch had a little-known secret that Oliver had discovered when he saw an alley cat disappear into the side of the building. Curious, he had crawled down and searched where it had gone. There was a crack in the boards behind the weeds, probably where a wagon's steering mechanism had rolled into it, or perhaps it was kicked by a horse. There was a cobweb-filled space about two feet high beneath the inn's floorboards, for Wharf Street often flooded during the early spring or late autumn, and the proprietor hadn't wanted puddles inside.
Indeed, there were a few puddles he splashed through as he made his way under the boards on his hands and knees, listening to the creaking and thumping of business above. Oliver was much more worried about grabbing that bloated purse than staying clear of a bit of mud. A stool scraping over the floor echoed into the space beneath, sending bits of dust down to tickle the back of his neck. All the sounds below had an eerie muted quality to them, in sharp contrast to the noise on the street outside the inn. The latter would certainly be enough to cover his approach, but he was stealthy all the same as he crept out under the porch.
At the time he had discovered the cat's hole, it had seemed a convenient plan for escaping the pursuit of the law if he were ever observed in his trade near that street. If, of course, and he felt it unlikely--he was quite skillful at his trade.
Once to the porch, he would only have to pry one of the boards loose and wiggle free. It could be done nearly noiselessly, especially on a crowded day like today.
Now, he had sacrificed the escape route in favor of a safe way to get his hands on the money. The man was no shy character, and the only way Oliver was going to get anywhere near the vigilant ruffian's person was through this secret way. All he had to do was get his hands up where the board used to be, slit the man's purse loose from his belt, and he could be around the side of the building and down the maze of Vervengröt's alleys and streets before anyone had even realized how he had done it.
Oliver's luck held true as he reached a plank almost directly behind the man. The muscly calves, entombed in their dirty, worn stockings, were each bigger around than his upper arms. At sixteen he knew he couldn't expect to have gained all the muscle he would, but the thought was still daunting. This man could break him in half without breaking a sweat. For a moment, he almost backed out the way he came in, but in his mind's eye the heavy purse came into focus, and he immediately began to pry at the board as quietly as he could.
It was only nailed at the top, a cursory barricade against stray animals taking up residence under the inn; apparently the proprietor had still not found the cat's hole. Whoever had made it must have feared the fine and had hurried away without saying anything. He smiled grimly as he twisted the board from side to side, working the iron nails loose. His good luck--the silver charm around his neck felt warm against his skin as he thought about it.
The board creaked suddenly, and he froze, holding his breath, for the sound was loud in his ears. But the giant man before him did not move at all; he was so still he might be one of the boards himself. The sounds of the wharf's populace must have covered the sound, and Oliver began his work again, sweat trickling down his brow and to the sides of his nose and temples. If the man turned around or moved to the side, he would surely be caught, and he tried to work as quickly as possible.
It soon became obvious that he was going to need to pull two boards apart--he could never do the job one-handed, and he could not fit both shoulders through one hole, nor his head. The second board did not creak at all, though, and he set it on the damp earth as quietly as he had the first.
Gently, with his teeth on edge and his heart pounding in his ears, he rolled onto his back and slid out ever so slowly from beneath the porch, reaching up toward the purse.
It was bigger than he had even thought; in close quarters, he realized it was nearly the size of his head. He had never seen such a sizeable prize. Even better, he now had the view to study the workmanship on the man's boots and coat, and decided it looked to be of fine quality. Nothing a nobleman would brag of, but certainly more than most mariners could afford. He doubted that leather sack was all coppers.
He reached up, carefully keeping his flopping ponytail away from the man's feet--it wouldn't do to go tickling the brute's ankles. Oliver slid his smallest dagger from the brace under his sleeve and reached his hands up, trying to breathe slowly and shallowly as he stretched toward the purse.
The man reached down and grabbed both his hands so quickly he hadn't time to get a breath in before he was suddenly jerked up, hard, his throat slamming into the wooden frame of the porch. He coughed and gasped even as his intended victim booted him a few times in the back; there was nothing Oliver could do to avoid the heavy blows, for the lower half of his body was still trapped under the porch. Cursing loudly, the sailor hauled him out from under the porch where he'd lain so carefully, one hand immobilizing both of Oliver's wrists and the other shoving him forward with a hold on the back of his neck.
Oliver's first thought was that he was never going to be able to breathe again, and by the time he realized his throat had only been bruised and the wind knocked out of him, it was too late to run. Those immense bull-like muscles, spread throughout rough seaman's hands the size of frying pans, were gripping him like the jaws of a ratdog, forcing him to lay half-prone over the edge of the porch. His cheek rubbed in the gritty sand tracked onto the wood from the boots of the inn's patrons.
"Ye want metal then, you yellow bottom-feeding thief?" the mariner bellowed, his voice just as intimidating as his ox-like strength and wild mismatched eyes. The hairy weatherbeaten cheeks were red with rage, and with the hand that had been on his captive's neck the man reached for a heavy, murderous dagger from the sheath on the other side of his belt. Oliver desperately tried to choke out an apology, a lie, anything. His voice would not respond though--he could only cough and rasp as if he had inhaled a lungful of dry dust.
"Wait up, then, sir," called another man's voice. This voice was smooth and cool, the sound of authority and reason. Oliver couldn't see the newcomer's face or body, but from the angle his head was twisted at he could see the interfering agent's own large fingers curled around the angered seafarer's wrist, staying him from drawing the blade. They were also the scarred, tanned hands of a sailor.
"Fer what?" snarled the dusty mariner. "T'rat was after me purse." His tone made it clear he thought this worthy of a missing ear or worse, and while a fuss might be made if Oliver were a merchant's son, a maimed urchin would be no one's concern but Oliver's himself. Poor thieves were at the mercy of their captors in Candória. There was almost nothing to dissuade the man from taking his legal revenge.
"That be my cabin boy; I been arter him ta get back on t'ship, but y'know how they are. He been--"
"That's a cabin boy like I'm a woman," snapped the first, and he tightened his grip on Oliver's wrists until the youth was certain they would snap under the pressure, or at least meld into one unbending joint. He knew the man was right--his clothing, even if it were of a seaman's style (which it wasn't), was still covered in layers of earth and haydust. Cabin boys generally had shaved heads as well, to cut down on the nuisance of taking care of them--and Oliver's hair was past his shoulders.
"Now, now. There ain't no need fer accusin' men o' things. If I take him off yer hands, ye've got yer purse, and none the worse for it but what a cold drink wouldn't smooth over," Oliver's benefactor said smoothly. "Why, if I know our Johnny 'e's got enough coins t' cover yer trouble tucked right in 'ere," the man went on, sliding his fingers deftly into the inside pocket of Oliver's jacket.
He slid more than enough from the lining, where Oliver had long ago painstakingly sewn in more than sixty separate pockets to hold one coin each, so they would not jingle against one another and give him away. How had the man known?
"Ye ain't gonna buy 'im off with 'alf a palm o' coppers," was the angry reply.
Suddenly, the tone of Oliver's new friend lowered, and while his words and even his voice were friendly enough, it was clear something in his manner had changed. "I t'ink it'd be a right shame," he said slowly, "If 'twere to come t'more 'n just a few coppers."
By now, there was a murmuring circle of passersby that had stopped to watch the spectacle, and Oliver could feel the man holding him slacken his grip some. It was only seconds later that the man's fingers let go of him completely, and he heard the clink of coins changing hands. Even with the throbbing pain in his back and throat, he still felt regret at the loss of the bountiful purse.
He struggled to his feet, coughed again, and watched the back of his attacker shoving through the crowd toward the docks. When he was sure the man would not be turning around, he turned to get a good look at his savior.
"Need a drink, lad?" asked the man, smiling heartily. He ignored the people who had been watching, and they cleared off quickly now that the fun was over. He was dressed much as the other man had been, though this man's clothes lacked the dust, and his hat was a rounded affair. His heavy brown hair was pulled back into a tail, and he wore thick silver hoops in both ears, and one in his lip.
Oliver tried to respond, but after the painful blow from the side of the porch, his voice refused to come out more than a whisper. The breezy volume wasn't good enough over the sounds of the waterfront and its various human and animal inhabitants. He shook his head and put up a hand to wave dismissively--the only thing he could think about was getting out of here and hustling back to his safe hayloft for a good long nap--but his savior had other plans.
"I wouldn't hear o' ye refusin'," the man said in a warm, firm voice, and his hand closed tightly around Oliver's waving wrist. He leaned in closer, his clear brown eyes fixing sharply on Oliver's lighter, amber ones, and in a low voice he added, "I been watchin' you fer hours now lad. You 'n I'll have a talk, then."
Swallowing hard and wincing at the swollen pain in his throat, Oliver nodded, his heart pounding in his chest. The man had an even white smile and a pleasant demeanor, but there was a core of sword-quality steel that showed in more than just his tight grip. Resignedly, he followed the mariner along the wharf to the south.
He wished his voice would come back soon so he could ask how the devil the fellow had known the existence of or the way into his secret pockets.