Fedor blew out the flame and dipped his brush into the melted polish. He studied the man’s shoes—simple, but well-made, soft black leather fastened with silver buckles.
He applied the polish to the right shoe, building up the first layer with gentle circles until the leather turned matte.
“You know, child. I was once where you were.”
Fedor applied the foundation layer to the left shoe.
“Though it was Hafendorf where I first plied my trade.”
Fedor gazed up at him with a raised eyebrow. “You were a polish boy?”
“No. I used to run messages on the docks.”
Fedor spat on the right shoe and brushed back and forth across the polish.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what I did?”
Fedor shrugged. “What’s the point?”
The man chuckled. “What’s the point? The point is I’m trying to teach you something. Tell me, child, how old are you?”
“I don’t know.” He brushed around the buckles and moved onto the other shoe.
“You’re not a man yet. What are you—twelve, thirteen?”
“I said, I don’t know.” He glared at the man’s questions and quickly averted his gaze—this was no way to get tips.
“I started off as a lowly messenger, dodging the curses of sailors, and I now run a merchant company with trading houses in Welttor, Nebel Hafen, Reichsherz, and I’m always looking to expand my operation.” He chuckled to himself. “And yet I still find myself dodging the curses of sailors.”
“And do you know how I did it?”
“I don’t.” Fedor pulled a leather cloth from his box and made small circles in the leather, bringing the surface to a deep shine.
The man leaned forward and tapped Fedor’s shoulder. “Do you want to know the secret?”
Fedor frowned. “To what?”
“To everything, of course.” The man looked around the market square, seemingly seeking inspiration from something or someone. Alchemical lights shone from the cave roof above, twisting his features with shadows. “The secret, my boy, is integrity.” He held Fedor’s gaze. “If you can be trustworthy, people will come back to you again and again.”
“Right.” He pulled his gaze away and wiped a mark from the left buckle.
“Believe me. It works much better than fear.”
Fedor sniffed. “You should tell that to the gangs round here.”
“Of course, you can get things done with fear and intimidation, but no one will thank you for it. As soon as your back is turned, you’re likely to find someone willing to drive a knife into your back.”
“I get it. Treat people bad and it comes back threefold. Priest talks about that all the time.”
“But it’s about more than merely avoiding pain. No, it’s about building trust over time. It’s about being reliable. It’s about integrity.”
“I don’t know what that word means.”
The man shook his head. “Simply put, integrity is about knowing the difference between right and wrong.”
“I know about sin.”
“Indeed. But there’s a difference between knowing and doing.”
Fedor raised the man’s feet to check the soles. He scraped away bits of dried dirt and salt from the grooves. He studied his work for a long moment and got to his feet on creaking knees. “All done.”
The man examined his shoes and took a piece of hack silver from his pocket. “This is for you. Thank you.”
Fedor pocketed the silver and tipped his cap. “Thanks, mister.”
“Remember what I said.” He held Fedor’s gaze. “We all have choices in this world.” He turned and walked away.
Fedor dropped his scraping tool into his box and sighed. “Whatever.” His eyes widened at the glimmer of silver resting on the seat. He snatched it up and turned it in his fingers. It showed a wyvern crest on one side and a profile of Ostreich’s last empress on the reverse—a one krone coin.
He hurriedly stuffed his cloth and brushes into his box and slammed the lid shut.
What if he kept the coin for himself?
With a sigh, he picked up his box and chased after the man.
He caught up to him at the stairs leading to the arena. “Hey, mister.”
The man spun on his heels and smiled at Fedor. “Ah, child. Is there a problem?”
Fedor handed the coin to the man. “This must have dropped from your pocket.”
The man studied the coin and tossed it back. “That coin is for you.”
“For me?” His eyes widened. “I didn’t know. You should have said.”
“If I had said, you wouldn’t have done the right thing.”
Deep lines set between Fedor’s eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
The man reached into his purse and pulled out another one-krone coin. He held it between his fingers and flicked it with his thumb, sending it turning through the air into Fedor’s hand. “And now you have two.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Remember what I said about integrity. Take care of yourself.”
“Erm, thank you.” The man strode away and Fedor shook his head. Who was he? What in the void was he trying to prove? His heart raced. Maybe it was another test. What if the priests had sent him to make sure Fedor was not pocketing the gains for himself? They would beat him again and feed him only scraps for a week. He refused to go through that again.
But if it was not a test—
A hand slapped down on his shoulder. “I don’t know what that was, but that was great. Never seen one like that before.”
Fedor vaguely recognised the lad, a few years his senior. He wore a grey shortcoat, white shirt, trousers, and boots, his sharp features shaded by a flat cap.
“I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure, mate.” He pumped Fedor’s hand. “I’m Lev.”
“Confused? Thought your name was Fedor?”
“It is. Wait, how do you know—”
“Quick.” He tugged Fedor’s wrist and ducked into a tunnel at the edge of the market square. “This way.”
“Where are we going?”
Lev stopped. “Here’s fine.” He looked past Fedor and nodded to himself. “Never tell who’s listening, you know?”
“What do you want?” Fedor glanced back over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, mate.” Lev held his palms open. “I got no intention of robbing you, if that’s what you’re worried about. Just want to know how you pulled it off.”
“Pulled what off?”
“You think I don’t recognise a scam when I see one? I’ve not seen that one before. How did it work? Is it just you?”
“Just me, what?”
“Mate, seriously?” Lev rolled his eyes and sighed. “I saw what happened. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”
“It wasn’t a scam. Honest.”
“No, mate. I saw it with my own eyes. You got Bartok Schultz to give you coin for no reason.” He fixed Fedor’s gaze. “I know a scam when I see one, trust me. How did you set it up?”
“It’s not a scam.”
“Course not.” He dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned forward. “Don’t worry. I’m not with the filth, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“I know you’re not with the watch. I’ve seen you around. The priests say you’re no good.”
Lev spat on the floor. “The priests. The bloody priests? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d sooner trust a wyvern than a priest.” He took a step forward and sneered. “Tell me. Priests make you grab their dicks yet or shoved things up your arse?”
Fedor started at the curses. “No.”
“Maybe it’s just the girls they do that to. Dirty bastards, either way.”
“They wouldn’t do—”
“I bet they hit you, don’t they? Give you a good smack for no reason.”
“Only sometimes.” He shuffled on his feet. “Only when we’ve sinned.”
“Yeah, I bet. Perverts, the lot of them.” He jabbed Fedor’s chest. “You need to get out of there, mate, before they start trying to bum you.”
“Bum me?” He pressed his back against the wall, his eyes growing wide. He had never heard anyone speak like this about the priests before.
“Good-looking lad like you.” He shrugged. “Surprised they haven’t already. Bloody pervs.”
“How would you know?”
“Everyone knows, mate.” He let out a sigh. “That’s how they do it.”
Lev inclined his head. “You’re not the smartest kid around here, are you?”
Fedor stared at him, his mouth unable to form words.
“Think about it. Where’s the best place to find kids who won’t grass to their parents?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged one shoulder. “An orphanage?”
“See, you’re not a complete thicksicle.” He rubbed his hands together. “When you think about it, it all makes perfect sense.” He spat on the floor again. “Dirty bastards. You need to get out of there, get as far away from those nonces as you can.”
“I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“Those coins you scammed are a good start, mate. You got two, didn’t you?”
“So, out with it then. How did it work?”
“I swear it wasn’t a scam.”
Lev eyed him up and down and nodded to himself. “You’re either a good liar, or you’re telling the truth.” He folded his arms. “Tell me what happened.”
“I was shining his shoes and he was talking about doing good, and how he’d been a messenger.”
“Go on.” He tapped his foot.
“When I finished, he left a coin on the chair, and I went after him to give it back.”
Lev sniffed. “I would have kept it.”
“But he said the coin was for me and gave me another.”
“And that’s it?”
“So, it was like a reward. You returned his coin and he gave you two? That’s genius, that is, mate.” Lev pushed out his bottom lip. “Great angle. Do-gooders like to do that. What you going to do with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know much, do you, mate? You should get us a good meal and place for the night. Get away from that orphanage.”
“I don’t know.” He fingered the coins in his pocket. “I think it might be a test.”
Lev studied him for several seconds. “What kind of test?”
“Doesn’t seem real, does it? I think the priests might be behind it.”
Lev rubbed his chin. “Make sense. Seems a bit far-fetched, though, doesn’t it?”
“But what if it is?”
“Nah, mate. You’re wrong.” He shook his head. “What difference does it make to the priests?”
“It’s not my money to keep.”
“He gave it to you, didn’t he?”
“Yes. But anything I earn goes to the priests.”
“Really?” He cocked an eyebrow and snorted. “And I thought they abolished slavery.”
“It’s not slavery. They feed me. They give me a roof, a bed.”
“Honestly, mate. They used to give slaves places to eat and sleep. That’s your money, that is. I’d be in half a mind to tell one of the watch, though we don’t exactly see eye to eye, if you get my meaning.”
“You get money for shining shoes, right?”
“He paid for that as well, didn’t he? Bit of hack for your efforts, like the rest?”
Fedor narrowed his eyes. “How long have you been watching me?”
“I watch everyone, mate. It’s what I do. You’d be surprised what you see when you take time to watch. That’s what I do. I pay attention. I see things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Lots of things. Pay attention and the truth reveals itself, isn’t that what they say?”
Fedor shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know.”
“Trust me. People don’t pay attention to things. I do. I might even tell you what some of those things are if we work together.”
“Sure. Why not? I can take you under my wing, show you what’s what. You seem like a smart enough kid. Bit wet behind the ears, like, but I’m sure we can sort you out.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Here’s an idea. Keep that hack aside for the priests and I can show you a good way to spend that coin.”
Fedor rubbed the back of his neck and lowered his voice. “But what if it’s a test?”
“What if it is? You’ve got to live in the moment. Take whatever they give you and move on. At least you’ll have a good night to show for it.”
Fedor licked his lips. “What you got in mind?”
“Meal. Nice room. Some good ale. Or, you could go down into the stinking foundries, spend another night with a priest who wants to bum you.”
“They don’t bum me.”
“Yet.” Lev raised a finger and grinned. “But there’s always time, mate.”
“But it’s a sin.”
“Depends who you ask.”
Fedor shook his head. “They wouldn’t do that.”
“You keep thinking that, mate.” He gestured back towards the market. “You get to the pubs much?”
Fedor shook his head. “No. We’re not allowed.”
“Well, in that case, we definitely need to do it. What you got to lose?”
“I don’t know.” Fedor shrugged. “Nothing, I guess.”
You can read the complete novel of Birth of Assassins when you claim your free Ravenglass Universe starter library and join the VIP newsletter.