Dagen crouched low behind the wooden barrels, his nose filled with the stench of rotting garbage. His heart was beating fast, but that was more from the run than from fear. Mostly, he was annoyed with himself for having turned down a blind end alley. He knew every inch of Durst inside out. He never should have allowed himself to get trapped.
Peering around the edge of the barrel, Dagen could see the shopkeeper and two other men standing not ten feet away at the entrance to the alley. Beyond them lay the busy street and freedom, but Dagen doubted he could slip past all three of them. There had to be some other way out of this alley.
"We know you're here, boy. You got nowhere to run."
Dagen's gaze slid up to the overhanging eave of the roof. Maybe, with a bit of a stretch... He stood up from behind the barrels and gave the three men a bright smile. "Hi, guys, looking for me?"
"Dirty, thieving, little scrunt. I got you this time."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that, fat man."
The shopkeeper reddened, then smiled nastily, revealing uneven, yellow teeth. "What are you going to do, boy? Sprout wings and fly away?" The three men got a good laugh out of this.
"Not exactly." Dagen climbed up on the barrels and gave the men a jaunty grin. "See you later." He then jumped up and caught hold of the eave, drawing in a sharp breath as the edge bit into his fingers.
The shopkeeper made a fairly impressive running lunge and grabbed at Dagen's dangling feet. But he was already pulling himself up and all the man managed was to crash into the barrels and send their uniquely fragranced contents spilling into the alley. The sound of the man's curses followed Dagen as he ran, laughing, across the rooftop.
He ran full out, bare feet making slapping noises against the flat, wooden roof. There was a gap between this building and the next, but it was a narrow one and Dagen made the leap easily, only stumbling a little on the landing.
Now he was faced with nothing but open air. There were no other buildings near this one, just a long drop down to the street. The question of what to do next was answered by the slow, lumbering progress of a wagon loaded down with loose hay. Dagen grinned. People had always told him he had unnatural good luck, but mostly he liked to think of it as pure skill. Still, in a moment such as this one, he had to concede that luck might play some part in it, however small.
He crouched, waiting until the wagon was directly beneath him, then jumped off the roof and into the soft pile of sweet-smelling hay. After burrowing down a safe distance, Dagen looked through the narrow cracks in the wagon's side. There stood the shopkeeper and his two goons, in the middle of the street, staring up at the building with grim expressions on their faces. If they were waiting for him to come back down, they would be waiting a very long time indeed.
The wagon carried him along the road leading out of Durst, past the rows of brightly colored tents that had been set up for the Flag Fair, and into the open countryside. Dagen waited until he felt they were a comfortable distance before hopping out of the back. He stood by the side of the road, grinning, and with a wave, called out, "Thanks for the ride."
The old farmer driving the wagon looked back at him in owlish surprise. Laughing, Dagen trotted down the slight slope leading away from the road, dusting hay from his clothes as he went.
He reached into his shirt and pulled out the money purse he'd lifted off the fat lady at the bakery who had been too busy sampling the products to notice. If it hadn't been for her greasy-faced kid, he'd have gotten away clean, but no matter. He got away anyhow and he wasn't going home empty handed.
Of course, when he told the story to the other boys, he might alter a detail or two here and there. After all, a guy had to protect his reputation. He broke into a light jog that carried him the rest of the way to the farm.
The farmhouse was a rundown old thing with a patched roof and whitewash that had long ago turned into a sickly yellowish gray. A wooden fence surrounded the front yard, where a few scrawny chickens pecked at the grass under the watchful eye of an equally scrawny rooster.
Behind the house was a sagging barn-an old mutt lay in the open doorway, his tongue lolled out on the ground-and beside that a small stable that was currently occupied by a single old mare. Any passerby would have thought this exactly what it looked to be: a hardscrabble farm. They might even expect to see the farmer's wife come out to hang the wash, scolding the chickens as she did so. Nobody would have guessed it was actually the home of the most notorious band of thieves this side of the Silver River. Maybe in all of Rasan.
Dagen pushed open the gate, wincing as it gave out a protesting squeal. As he made his way across the yard to the porch he kept one eye on the rooster, who was a cross old cuss known to attack without provocation.
Rather than knocking on the door, Dagen stuck his head in the open window. He caught a whiff of stale beer and cinnamon. The living room, which held nothing more than one lumpy old couch and a threadbare rug, was currently unoccupied. "Hey, old man, your favorite little thief is home."
From somewhere further back in the house-the kitchen, judging by the smell-there came a clatter and hoarse shout. "You know the way."
Dagen entered the house, passed through the living room, and stepped into the kitchen, where the scent of cinnamon was far stronger. Majul Fossard stood at the blackened cook stove, his stained apron stretching across his considerable girth as he stirred something in a large pot. "You always scream like a banshee before coming into a man's home?" As he spoke, the cigar in his mouth bobbed up and down, sprinkling ash into whatever was bubbling in the pot.
"Only for you, old man."
Majul grunted. "You got something for me?"
"I've never come home empty handed yet, have I?" Dagen held out the money purse.
Majul gave the contents of the pot another stir, then set the spoon aside, took the purse, and shook its contents out onto the wooden countertop. He pushed the silver coins about with one finger, muttering under his breath.
"Twenty-five pendels." Majul shook his head as he scooped all but one of the coins back into the purse. "You're losing your touch."
The purse had felt a little heavier than twenty-five pendels to Dagen, but then he had never learned to count past ten, so he simply had to take Majul's word for it. "I thought I'd go easy, seeing as how tomorrow is the first day of the Flag Fair and all. You just wait. This year I'll bring in a haul like you won't believe."
Majul snorted. "I heard that before."
"I thought I did a pretty good haul last year." Dagen tried to sound nonchalant so Majul wouldn't notice that his remark had stung.
"Last year you promised me something that would knock my eyes out, and you did good, but not so much better than most of the other boys. Year before that, same thing, and the year before that too. Face it, boy, you ain't nothing special and you ain't never going to be nothing special. You ain't nothing but a scruffy little street rat, just like the rest of the boys, and you ain't never going to make nothing but a scrambly pickpocket, a runny boozer, or a rocking corpse with his neck stretched." He turned toward the door on the far side of the room, the one that led down into the cellar. Dagen had never been down there, but the other boys had said that was where Majul kept what they brought him, at least for a time.
Twice a year, an enclosed wagon would show up at the farm, and much of what was in the cellar would be put into the wagon and carried off. A month or so later, a lone rider would show up, carry his saddlebags into the farmhouse, stay for five or ten minutes, then come back out and ride away.
There was some speculation among the boys as to what this was all about, but no agreement could be made. Halbert was of the opinion that the objects in question were carted off to The Market, which was said to be a secret location where thieves could easily sell their stolen goods without fear of getting pinched.
Dagen had scoffed at the idea. He believed in The Market no more than he believed in magic or gods; it was just another legend. Majul might be selling his goods somewhere, in fact he almost certainly was, but not at The Market.
Dagen stared at Majul's back. "You weren't any different than me, once. You turned out okay."
Majul guffawed. "You don't make half of me, boy. Now get out to the barn and bed down. I expect tomorrow will be a busy day."