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The shadows of the night lengthened as the sun dipped below the western horizon. One by one, as their poles fell into shadows, the lights that illuminated the better maintained streets of the Gulch at night flickered to life with the power of magic. On avenues, less frequented by Guildsmen on business and traveling Nobility, they had to make due with oil lamps hung from poles, or nothing at all. The lights gave the citizens only a semblance of safety, an illusion of security thanks to patrols by the city watch. In the alleyways and shadows of the labyrinth like streets of the Gulch men and women waited for the unwary to wander by. Whores lingered in the fitful pools of light provided by those oil lamps as they sought to separate men from their coin. Moans of passion as well as groans of pain could be heard from the many narrow alleys. Children of the street, called Minnows, snatched purses and begged for coin under the watchful eyes of their Sharks.
It all brought back so many memories to Lucas. He had been a Minnow from the time he was five until he was plucked from the street by the Mistress at 12. The boy knew how close he had come to being one of the whores on the street, or in some dockside brothel. He knew exactly how short lived those life paths could be. A day didn’t go by in the Gulch without a body discovered in an alley, or where it floated in the river. The watch had put up a net across where the river emptied into the lake to catch any bodies before they could be swept out into open water. The more thoughtful murderers now tied bricks to the bodies of the deceased so they’d remain where thrown.
Now he was back in the Gulch on a mission from his Mistress. She needed a soldier to blackmail. Someone with rank. Someone with a dark secret she could exploit to get whatever it was she needed. Like the loyal pet he was, Lucas put his life and freedom in jeopardy at the behest of his Mistress. It was the least he could do after all she had given him. From the prestige of being a courtesan at the House of Sighing Shadows to the tutelage she had given him to hone his abilities.
Lucas and his conspirators waited well back in an alley off the Gold Gate road. The youth sat upon a barrel, a fresh loaf of bread wrapped in cloth rested against his hip as he leaned against the wall at his back. His eyes closed as he cast out his mind to keep watch for their prey. Just any old soldier would not do. A private would be useless to his Mistress. A raw recruit would be equally as useless. He needed a career soldier with sufficient rank. His gifts were more than efficient as a lookout. Human lookouts could be spotted. Lookouts could not peer into the surface thoughts of their potential prey. They wanted to avoid being caught by those they hunted. He only needed to be cautious of any mages from the College Arcane who might sniff him out as they wandered by.
They’d chosen the alley with care. It ran between two warehouses, so it was less likely they would have to deal with anyone inside the buildings. The Gold Gate road at one end was heavily traveled by those who used the gate to exit the walls of the city, or who made their own lively hood off of those who traveled. While the street at the other end of the alley was not nearly as heavily trafficked, but offered numerous escape routes for the two young men who passed the time dicing against the wall opposite from where Lucas rested.
“Make sure you don’t forget those,” Lucas said as he heard the dice rattle across the ground once more. “This needs to be seen as a random attack, not anyone lying in wait.”
“Yeah yeah we heards ya... Tha Boss tolds us all what we needs ta do,” the older of the two brothers grumbled. The brothers were so close in appearance they almost seemed to be twins, though one was a good year older than the other. They probably capitalized on their resemblance in order to confuse anyone who witnessed them perform a crime. Always have a witness who saw you far away from the actual crime. Casey trained his little gang well.
The younger brother scooped up the dice and tucked them into a pocket, “So… like ya knew tha Boss from like... befores he was... tha Boss?”
Lucas cracked open an eye to look over at the brothers. They weren’t tall, nor did they look particularly strong. But both had a wiry build of deceptive strength. Their knuckles were scarred from numerous brawls and Lucas was certain they could put distance between themselves and more heavily armored pursuers with a swiftness. “Yeah... we were Minnows together. He’s like a brother to me.” He rubbed the back of his neck to relieve the tension that grew there.
“A brother he’d like ta fuck,” the elder brother said with a snort.
Lucas smirked, “We decided years ago we’re better off as friends than lovers.” His head swiveled as he felt another group of soldiers who approached the alley, their minds held promise. “Alright... here they come. Now please, make it believable... but I’d appreciate to be able to see after.”
“Yeah yeah… we’ll bruise that pretty face but won’t break it none.” The elder brother said as he shrugged his shoulders to loosen them.
“That would be appreciated.” He hopped to his feet and handed the loaf of bread to the younger brother. When he felt the soldiers draw close enough he leapt on the younger brother’s back, wrapped an arm around the youth’s neck as he grabbed a handful of the boy’s ragged mud brown hair. “GIVE IT BACK YA FUCKEN SHIT STACK!” Lucas shouted to make their fight more believable.
“Git ‘em off me! Git ‘em off me!” The "bread thief" wailed as he spun around to try to shake loose the persistent youth who sought to reclaim his loaf of bread.
“Aw fer fuck’s sake! Hold still dammit!” The accomplice shouted as he grabbed hold of Lucas by his shirt and hair, then drug him off the back of the bread thief as the aggrieved howled in protest. He shoved the smaller youth hard against the wall but the blonde wouldn’t go down without a fight. He leapt at the accomplice, caught him in the jaw with a swung fist. The accomplice snarled and threw a punch at the smaller boy that caught him in the face to knock him to the ground.
“Hey now!” A voice barked from the mouth of the alley. A trio of soldiers saw the ruckus and moved in their direction.
“Fuck! Run!” The bread thief panicked as he hauled ass for the opposite end of the alley. The accomplice saw the soldiers but aimed another kick at the boy on the ground, to catch him in the ribs before he too ran.
Two of the soldiers pounded after the thieves as they fled while the third stopped by the youth on the ground, “Hey there now. You okay lad?”
Lucas almost wanted to yell at the "accomplice" that the kick hadn’t been part of the plan, but then he hadn’t expected to land a blow when he threw his punch himself. The crack to the jaw had surprised his partner in crime, “Bastards stole me damn bread.” He coughed as he pushed up from the ground. He could already feel his eye swell shut from the well-aimed punch.
“Well from what I saw they picked on the wrong boy to steal from. You fought bravely.” He offered a hand to Lucas to help him to his feet.
Lucas looked at the hand with suspicion. Those raised as street Minnows didn’t trust soldiers. Soldiers meant pain and fear. Soldiers were the heavy hand of authority, the boot that stood on the neck of boys like him. He started to reach for the hand, then hesitated and instead used the wall to brace himself as he got to his feet. “They still got mah damn bread.” His elocution instructor would cry real tears if he could hear Lucas now. So much time and effort to rid his voice of the street, and here he embraced it with vigor once more.
“Regrettable,” the soldier said as he looked down the alley where his comrades had disappeared. He turned back to Lucas, “What’s your name lad?”
Lucas leaned against the wall, one arm around his bruised middle while he’s gently poked at his swollen eye. He gave the soldier a suitably suspicious glance before he looked away, “Luca... Luca Blue.” A nice anonymous street name, like so many other boys who didn’t have regular shelter or families to give a damn about them.
Before the soldier could say anything more his companions returned. One of them carried the now badly damaged loaf of bread. It looked as if someone stepped on it in the pursuit. “They got away… but dropped this.” He held out the bread to Lucas.
“Bloody fucken balls in a pink and yella handbasket,” he spit as he took the bread and began to pick the worst of the dirt off the bread. Someone who struggled for existence on the streets wouldn’t throw away good bread, even if it had been stepped on and kicked around.
The trio of soldiers exchanged looks as the boy picked dirt and debris from his mangled bread. Finally the one who had attempted to help him up reached out, “Leave it lad. I’ll buy you a fresh loaf of bread.”
Lucas clutched the bread to his chest as he took a step back, a look akin to fear in his eyes, “I ain’t got no money fer more.”
“It’s no problem. A lad as brave as you deserves a worthy loaf of bread.” He took a step away and extended an arm to the boy, “The baker is on our way.”
Lucas looked at each of the soldiers then at the far end of the alley as if he wondered if he could make a run for it. Soldiers were not to be trusted after all, they were dangerous. He wiped at his face with the back of his hand, the dirt there smeared even more. He finally nodded and would step away from the wall to join them as they exited the alley.
“Luca Blue... This here is Corporal Gregory Reid, Corporal Lamont Weis, and I’m Master Sergeant Gordon Walker of the 4th Regiment,” the eldest of the three said. Corporal Reid was a tall thin man, reddish hair, with an overly large Adam's apple and a nose a bird could perch on. Corporal Weis was of average height, black hair, with a bulldog kind of countenance that looked as if he regularly smashed his face into walls for fun. Sergeant Walker was a touch taller than Weis, but shorter than Reid. His hair was dark brown and kept short. The mustache he bore was iron grey and looked like a caterpillar had taken roost on his upper lip.
“Yer all from tha 4th? Like fer certain?” He’s looked at their uniforms and even dared to reach out and touch the crest on Sergeant Walker’s coat. “Thought ya’d be bigger.”
Corporal Reid snorted a laugh as he and Corporal Weis walked ahead of Lucas and Sergeant Walker. Walker just smirked, “Don’t believe the stories they tell of us lad... we only fart lightning on Wednesdays and our sneezes blow down the smaller trees, not mighty oaks.” That made both Reid and Weis laugh in amusement.
“Aw now I ain’t that dumb…” Lucas said, as he rubbed the back of his neck. “All tha stories folks tell bout tha 4th though... makes ya sound like fucken giants they do. But y’all ain’t no giants.”
“No lad, we’re just ordinary men.” He opened the door to the baker and while Reid and Weis waited outside he ushered Lucas inside.
Lucas had already been in the bakers to purchase his bread. He’d made sure to give the apple cheeked baker lots of compliments on how delicious her wares smelled and how much he looked forward to fresh baked bread for the first time in he couldn’t remember when. She was sure to remember the poor waif who had scraped together the handful of coins needed to buy the now destroyed loaf. She’d even given him one fresh out of the oven so it was still nice and warm when she wrapped it. The baker came out of the back of her shop as she, wiped her hands on her apron, when she saw the boy stand there with his mangled loaf of bread she gasped, “Oh no! You poor lad! Who did that to your bread… and your face!”
“Some ruffians attempted to steal the lad’s bread but he fought hard against them. I’m hoping to replace that which was destroyed,” Sergeant Walker said as he stepped up to the counter.
“Yeah... them bast... I mean them no good fellas.” He cast a glance at the Sergeant and the Baker at his lapse in language before he continued, “They grabbed mah bread n’said it was their’s... but they didn’t do tha work fer it like I did. Thought they could jus’ take it cause of me being all short n’stuff.”
Sergeant Walker placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, “You fought valiantly and I am sure they’ll think twice before picking on someone just because they are smaller.” He turned back to the baker, “Now my good Madam... what say you about another loaf of your fine bread?”
“Of course, I have some more right here, though it’s not as hot anymore.” She smiled and took the damaged loaf to toss in her rubbish bin before she wrapped up a fresh loaf from the shelves behind the counter. She handed over the fresh loaf and after a mild protest accepted the payment from Sergeant Walker. Before they turn to leave she motioned Lucas over and handed him a small apple tart, “A touch of sweet always makes a bad day better.”
Lucas stared at the sweet before his face broke into a huge grin, “Thankee Ma’am... thankee much.” He walked outside with his fresh bread under his arm as he just stared at the tart. He almost ran right into Sergeant Walker, “Lookit what I got.” He held up the tart to the man.
Sergeant Walker laughed softly, “Looks mighty tasty. Enjoy it, lad.”
Lucas seems to ponder a moment then split the tart in half, to offer one half of it to the older man, “You want a taste? Ya bought me tha bread an’ all.”
As he shook his head Sergeant Walker gently pushed Lucas’s hand away, “She gave it to you Luca, enjoy it.”
The boy stared at him for a moment then shoved half of the tart into his mouth, “Ooo... so good...” He said around a mouthful of crust and fruit.
Sergeant Walker just smiled and shook his head, “I hope your night gets better young Luca.” He nodded and walked off to join his companions who waited by the corner.
Lucas waited a moment then jogged to catch up to him, “Where ya goin? Back ta yer barracks?”
“Not quite yet. We were going to take our liberty at the Red Mermaid.” He said with a side-eyed glance at the youth who walked beside him.
“Oh…” Lucas fell behind a couple of steps, then hurried to catch up once more, “Do ya like... need a squire or summich?”
“Squires are for Knights and noble Lords lad... and I am neither.” He said with a patient smile.
Up ahead Reid and Weis joked with one another. “Looks like Walker’s got himself another puppy.” Weis quipped before Reid added. “That’s what you get for feeding them, my friend,” as he called back over his shoulder. Walker just ignored the jab as he continued to walk at a leisurely pace in the direction of the named tavern.
Lucas scowled at Reid before he looked back to Walker eagerly, “I can do other things… shine yer boots... sharpen yer swords... “
“Polish his knob,” Weis said offhandedly and Reid laughed.
“Ignore their juvenile humor, Luca,” Walker said kindly when the boy scowled again. “I am afraid my needs are simple and I’ve no need for an assistant at this time. How old are you Luca?”
The boy knew he could easily pass for younger, but what he saw in Walker’s mind had shown him he wouldn’t get what he was after if he was too young, better to keep as much to the truth as was safe, “Sixteen summers, nearly seventeen... I know I ain’t tall n’shit but I’m a hard worker...”
“Still a touch too young to enlist I’m afraid. And I have no doubt you’re a hard worker.” As the other two walk into the tavern, Walker paused at the edge of the overhanging awning to turn to face Lucas. “It’s starting to get late lad… Will your parents be worried?”
Lucas shook his head as he again mixed the truth into this little charade, “Ma died of tha winter fever few years back... never knew my Da. Ain’t got no one else seein’ as how Ma’s folks put ‘er out when she was carryin’ me.”
Sergeant Walker closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath before they opened again, “And how do you get by Luca? Where do you stay?”
Now he looked nervous, he shifted from foot to foot, “I find work... here n’there… and one of them stables... they let me sleep in tha hayloft most nights... long as I play nice n’do what ‘e says.”
The older man reached out to take hold of the boy’s chin to turn him so he could look the youth in the eye, “Are you selling your body Luca? I’m sure you know the Imperial law…”
Lucas jerked away defensively, “It ain’t so bad... most folks just want me mouth anyways. An I ain’t no whore… Not like always. I do other stuff too.”
Sergeant Walker turned away to look out at the Gulch with the waterfall in the distance, “Oh sweet merciful goddess,” he half whispered to himself as he stood there with hands on hips. He turned his head again to look at the boy who now sulked, “Can you wait here for me? Don’t run off just yet?”
Lucas shrugged, “Yeah... I suppose…” He watched as the man went inside then sat on bench set under the front window of the tavern. He’d finished the tart on the walk over but now idly nibbled on his bread as he tore off small bites while he waited. He’d lucked up with the Master Sergeant. The man had the right personality, but the question was if he had something that could prove useful to The Mistress. To just corner someone who liked to diddle with boys wouldn’t have the same oomph as something more powerful in the man’s past. Though one thing about being a soldier for as long as Lucas could sense Sergeant Walker had been, there was sure to be a skeleton somewhere in the man’s closet. As he heard the door open again he glanced over just as Sergeant Walker walked out and sat on the bench next to Lucas.
“I want to try and help you lad. But I need you to trust me. Do you think you can trust me?” He asked, his elbows rested on his knees as he leaned forward.
“I guess.” He turned to face the older man as Sergeant Walk held out his hand with a key to one of the rooms in the tavern in it. “Whaz this?”
“A room for you to sleep in tonight that won’t cost you anything. Not a coin, not your mouth, and especially not your body.” He said gently.
Lucas got up to take a step away. He’d been willing to work, but to just be given something wasn’t the way the street worked. There were always strings attached. A man like Walker would understand the youth’s hesitation. “Why you doin’ this?”
“Because I’ve known other boys like you. Boys who were never given a second chance and saw their lives ended much too soon. I can’t bring you to the barracks, but I might be able to find you real honest work here in the Gulch that doesn’t involve you having to work on your knees.” He said as he held out the key. “I just need you to give me a day or two to ask around, so I’d like to know that you’re safe.”
“And... iffen ya don’t?” He asked, he did not reach for the key just yet.
“I am a very persuasive man and I have a few friends here and there in the city that owe me favors. It might be little more than sweeping the floor of a shop at first, but I’ll see that wherever you go you’ll have a safe roof over your head and no one will ask anything of you that you do not wish to do.” He waved the key back and forth in the air.
The boy had to think. He couldn’t be too eager. He had to weigh the cost of his trust of this man and the truth of his offer. Finally he nodded and reached out to grab the key, “They ain’t worried I’m gonna like steal tha blankets or nothing is they?”
“They aren’t worried because I am not worried. You seem a trustworthy lad Luca. And it is only for a day or two.” Sergeant Walker said as he stood once more. “Come on inside... we’ll get a good meal in you then you can sleep in a real bed tonight.”
Lucas nodded. He had already scanned the tavern as a precaution. He could not afford to meet anyone who might know him from his earlier life. Even if it had been four years since he last ran the streets he couldn’t risk that some observant busy body would spoil his ploy. The servers at the tavern were easy to hide his identity from, when they looked at him as he joined Sergeant Walker inside he sent feedback to their minds to fuzz his face in their memories. They might remember the Sergeant with a scruffy street urchin, but not much more than that. He continued to clutch the loaf of bread as he sat at the table with the three soldiers. The other two don’t seem surprised that Sergeant Walker has picked up a stray and comment to that effect. Soon a bowl of a hearty stew was set in front of him and Lucas didn’t have to pretend to be hungry as he started to devour it. He’d purposefully not eaten since his breakfast that morning and this role has dredged up too many memories of his own time on the streets. The many nights he had tried to sleep as his stomach gnawed away at his insides with not enough to fill it.
He did share his bread though, he tore off chunks to hand over to the soldiers with a shy smile of thanks to each one. As he handed over the bread to Weis and Reid he let his fingers brush against theirs. The physical contact augmented his telepathic ability and he quickly confirmed that he’d lucked up with Walker. Reid had a darkness in him, but Lucas could sense the man fully embraced his darkness and would not be someone who could easily be blackmailed. Weis seemed more like Walker in how the dark and the light were balanced within him, but he also had no interest in a boy to bed, no matter how comely he was. While Lucas was always up for a challenge, he was on a schedule and couldn’t waste time with a possible lost cause.
While the men drank ale and wine, Sergeant Walker ordered milk for Lucas. The youth scowled as they teased him gently about how milk would help him grow taller. But it was all in good natured fun and when Lucas snuck a few sips of Walker’s ale the man didn’t seem to mind. He sat in their midst so he could watch how they interacted. How even though Walker was a higher rank they didn’t hold him to some lofty perch but treated him like the friend he was to them now that they were off duty. When the meal was finished Reid pulled out a deck of cards and they soon had other patrons join them for a friendly game or two of cards. Lucas stayed nearby, even joined in a few hands and proved himself quite adept at their game of choice. He continued to sip at Walker’s ale and as the night wore on he rested his head against the older man’s shoulder.
“Wake up lad,” Walker said some hours later.
Lucas started awake, or at least seemed to for the man’s benefit. “Wha?”
“You should take yourself to bed. We need to get back to the barracks,” he said as the other two were over by the bar to settle their tab.
“Already?” He blinked and rubbed his eyes.
Walker chuckled, “For you... you fell asleep some time ago. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get my arm back.”
“Was comfy.” The boy said as he placed both hands on the table to push himself to his feet. “Woah…” He weaved a little then just tilted right over into the older man’s lap. Thankfully Walker caught him before he could fall onto the floor.
Walker stared at him a moment before he chuckled and shook his head, “Right... no more ale for you. You’ve obviously no head for it.” He helped Lucas to his feet once more and held him steady as he stood as well.
“Do too have a head... see... ish right here...” He puts both hands on his head and made as if to pull it off before he giggled again. Lucas hadn’t missed the way the man’s hand had lingered on his hip, or the thoughts that had run through his head when Lucas used him as a pillow.
“Oh, to be young again,” Sergeant Walker said then just picked Lucas up and tossed him over his shoulder like the boy was a sack of potatoes, “Wait for me outside boys. I’ll be right down.”
“Sure you will,” Reid scoffed as he and Weis went outside.
Lucas giggled as he gripped the back of the man’s belt while he was carried upstairs. He wasn’t really drunk but it was a convenient farce, as it allowed him to test the waters with his prey. When they reached the top of the stairs he smacked the man’s buttocks once which elicited a grunt from him and more giggles from Lucas.
Walker unlocked the door to carry Lucas inside. It was a modest room, not one of the best in the Inn but it was private and had a nice view of the street out front. The Master Sergeant set Lucas down on the bed and the boy immediately fell backwards with more giggles. With a heavy sigh, he knelt by the edge of the bed to pull off the boy’s shoes. The soldier mumbled something about a visit to a cobbler to get the youth a new pair of shoes that didn’t have holes in them.
Lucas pushed up onto his elbows so he could look down at the dark-haired head. As he sat upright he reached out and runs his fingers through Walker’s short cut hair and when the older man looks up he smiled, “I wouldn’t mind ya know... iffen ya wanna go.”
Walker stood and cupped the boy’s face in his hands as Lucas placed his hands-on Walker’s hips. When Lucas wrapped his legs around the older man’s legs, his ankles hooked behind Walker’s knees the man just smirked. He leaned down to kiss the youth’s brow and whispered, “Get some rest Luca. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he backed away as he slowly and gently extracted himself from the youth’s grasp.
“So tomorrow then?” Lucas asked as he rolled onto his stomach to look at the man over his shoulder.
“Rest. Sleep.” Walker said with a laugh as he made his way to the door.
“That’s not a no,” he called even as the door closed with a click of the lock. Lucas could feel the man walk away, he could just hear the old soldier berate himself mentally for letting a slip of a boy get under his skin like that. Lucas smiled as he popped to his feet and went over to the window. He stood to the side so he couldn’t be seen from below as he watched when Walker joined his companions. Just as they were about to turn a corner and move out of sight Walker looked back, his gaze seemed to seek out the window Lucas was stood in.
The blonde grinned. His plan worked better than he’d hoped. All he needed to do was trip the good Master Sergeant into his bed and see what information he could dig out of the man’s mind. Hopefully something worthy of blackmail that his Mistress could use. Lucas was half tempted to travel back to the brothel and sleep in his own bed. But he couldn’t risk some busybody maid in his room with him not inside it. Instead, he had to make do with a quick wash up with the basin and pitcher provided in his room, then he crawled into the adequately clean bed. He did sleep naked though, just in case the good Sergeant decided to come by to see him for an early morning visit. Never let an opportunity for seduction slip by his Mistress had taught him and Lucas fully embraced that thought.