As he grew older, it was harder; harder to hide.
As he grew older, and she grew older, her youth fading beneath the glare of sun, heat, hunger, her back bent by the poverty that he understood as part of his life, she would sometimes leave for the evening.
She would tuck him into bed, and tell him that she would return in the morning, and he would stay awake in the still of the night, staring at the low ceiling, until sleep snuck up on him. But he promised her that he would help her. That one day, she would live in a better place, and she would never have to spend time in the company of her men again.
He started thieving when he was six.
He was small for his age, waiflike; he could get close to people because they ignored him. Because he was quiet.
She was angry about the theft. The first time he had given her money, she went all gray, and instead of being proud of him, as she so seldom was, her anger came up instead, like sunrise. He knew she was angry. But she didn't hit him, and she didn't shout at him.
Instead, she left their two-room home, while the light of the sun was high.
She returned before sunset, to change into the gaudy clothing she wore at night, her lips a thin line, the corners of her mouth deep with age.
"You don't have no call to go thieving," she told him, her words as tight and angry as her expression.
"But it's money, Mom."
"But—but—it's better than the money you get from those men. I can get us money, Mom. You don't have to see them no more."
She caught him by the shoulders, her fingers sharp as knives. "That's
"But Peg says you're just selling yourself."
"And what if I am? I'm selling what's
. I'm not selling what belongs to anyone else. You understand? It's honest work. I do it because it's all I can do, but I ain't selling anything that belongs to anyone else. Where'd that money come from?"
He was smart enough not to shrug. "Some man."
"Some man? And what if that man has a little boy, like you? What if he has a bunch, eh? What if you just stole the food off their plates?"
He was silent. It had never occurred to him to wonder.
"I want you to be bigger, to be stronger. I want you to be
than that. You grow up, you can join the Kings' army. You can make an honest living. But they don't take no thieves, and I don't want no thieves in my house. You want to stay with me? You don't steal." She spit. "You can beg, if you want. You can sit in the streets with your hands out. But you take what they give you, you understand?"
He nodded, because nodding was safe.
And she looked as if she was going to cry. "You're the only thing in my life I've done right," she told him, touching his hair and his face with her shaking hands. "The only one. Don't break my heart. Don't make a lie out of all the work I done."
But it wasn't, in the end, his choice; it wasn't in the end, hers. That was the lie.
He looked up. The surface of the kitchen table was as clean and polished as the counters. They were never this clean. It was a bad sign. Where was the inkwell, the messy blotters, the quills that, time and again, Jewel ATerafin destroyed?
She had packed them away. Had cleaned house. Had left. That was the plan.
She'd done everything she could to make them a home in House Terafin. They had jobs now. They had more money than he had ever dreamed of having. They had responsibilities that they could be—that they were—proud of. Jewel's little den of thieves. Jay's misfits.
Because of her.
Where was she?
He didn't want to talk to Finch. He didn't want to talk to anyone. But he looked up and nodded when she called his name again.
Didn't much like what he saw there. Hadn't really expected to. "What—what's the news?"
She was so pale, so gray; he had learned to hate those colors when they resided beneath the soft peach tones of skin.
"Half the Common's been destroyed."
"We knew that."
Finch swallowed. She started to speak, but the door banged the wall behind her, and they both looked up. Angel was in the door, hands on either side of the frame as if—as if he were trying to shore up his own weight. His hair was in full spiral, his one conceit.
Finch gave conversational ground as easily as Teller did. "Angel?"
"She wants us."
For a moment, Teller felt a wild hope, but he killed it quickly.
"Who wants us?"
"The Terafin." He turned to look at the frame six inches above his hand. "Jay was in that market, as far as anyone's been able to tell. We've got her movements down just that far."
Teller ATerafin lowered his head to the surface of the kitchen table and let it rest there, against the cool wood.
"We're supposed to help her," Angel continued. "Word's out for Arann as well. Carver's already left with Jester."
The gates of the Terafin Manse passed by him like a dream. He had seen them for half of his life, but every so often he would pause in front of them, to the amusement or the consternation of the House Guard, and touch their polished rails. Nothing encroached upon that brass patina, that endless shine; whole days were spent tending to their appearance, as if they were the House armor.
Whole days, and more money than he and his mother would see in a month, when they had lived in the twenty-third holding, in the hundred, in the old city.
He tried not to steal. He really did try.
But there were nights when his mother came home emptyhanded, and her face was sallow with exhaustion and fear, her voice hoarse. He hated that fear. She would go to bed, and he would join her, and they would wake hungry and go to bed hungry until she left again.
When he was seven, those nights came more frequently. She said it was because of her teeth, because she had lost two. It was true. Her teeth, her lack of teeth, changed the way she looked. But she was his mother, and he loved her fiercely, and with a child's terror.
Those days, he would go to the streets himself—never at night, never then. And he would spend the day begging, and if that didn't go well, he would try his hand at worse. He always lied to her, though. He always told her that he had come by the money honestly.
He thought she believed him, because she didn't beat him. He would take her out to the market. He would give her the money. She would choose the food they ate, as she always did, and they would go home.
"One day," she would tell him, "you'll laugh at all this. You'll be the Kings' best man, mark my words. You'll make me so proud of you."
If she could see him now. If she could see him—if he could walk up to her and tell her that his name was Teller
—she would be more than proud. But she was wrong about one thing: He never did learn to laugh about their life together.
Finch tried to keep an eye on Angel. Arann was fine; quiet, worried, but very much the House Guard he had become. Carver and Jester were already gone, and Kalliaris knew, maybe they were even being useful. But Angel was… Angel. The only one of the den who had refused to take the name ATerafin when it was offered. Jewel had been pissed. But Angel had been Angel.
I'm your man, not
You become The Terafin, I'll take the name. But not until then
Teller had been almost embarrassed at how readily he'd accepted The Terafin's offer, but it had been too late to back down; he didn't want to look as if he were following Angel's lead. None of them did. And what difference did it make? They
"Look, if the two of you can't keep up, you can meet us there, all right?"
Teller was quiet. Finch looked pained. But after another city block had passed, they let him go. Let him go. They had miles to cover.
When Teller was eight and a bit, his mother went out for the evening, as she often did. He hated that she went out at nights, because more and more often she came home exhausted and angry and frightened. Just two days previous, he had tried to convince her to let him do what he could. Beg, he'd said. Let him beg. Maybe she knew. Maybe she just didn't trust him. Maybe so many things, all incomprehensible, their lives were now so different. She had gone out, as she always did.
But by morning, she hadn't returned. Morning.
He woke and he was alone. They only had one bed. He thought, for a moment, she might be in the kitchen. But she wasn't there, and that was worse. He waited for an hour, trudging in an endless circle between the two rooms, bed and table. It felt like a day.
Footsteps came and went, but he knew the sound of hers, and hers were absent.
When the sun was high in the sky, when all trace of dawn had vanished, he left the apartment and headed through the warrens to the Mother's small church. The priests and priestesses there sometimes offered a hand to those who were sick or injured—when it wasn't too crowded. When it wasn't winter, and the lines didn't twist round the building like a cat's tail, twitching to and fro.
He recognized the frail old woman who answered the door; she had that weary smile that all of the Mother's children had.
"My mother didn't come home last night. Did she come here?"
The woman's eyes widened slightly. And then they came down at the brow, not narrowing exactly, but changing in every other way. "Why don't you come in and check?" She said.
And he knew that she wasn't there. He backed away from the old woman, turned and ran.
Because he didn't know where she was. He only knew where she was supposed to be. At home. With him.
His mother had always told him to stay close to home, where people knew her. Where people knew him. She had made him promise, time and again, to be careful.
But at eight years old, all he knew that day was that his mother was gone, that she was somewhere else, and that he needed to find her. He needed to find her.
7th of Scaral, 427 AA
Averalaan, the Common
The Common. Teller had always counted the trees in the Common as he passed beneath their ancient bowers, had let his gaze drift up and up until his chin was almost a continuous line with his neck. He'd loved them, and Jay had loved them, although neither could quite say why.
He noticed their loss first. At a distance.
No one had ever asked him about his life. Not even Jay. He had never asked Finch about hers. It came to him that he did not know who any of them were outside of their life together. But some things came from that life, that outside life.
"Mother's blood," Finch whispered.
He looked. The Merchant Authority, grand old building that was a city block unto itself, had been staved in on the east side; great stone walls were crumpled like the thinnest of thatch. Men toiled in the rubble, like an army of workmen, their shadows short compared to the shadow cast by the destruction.
He did not want to go there.
He did not want to search the streets of the city—any city—again. Not like this. Not this way.
It's not the same
, he told himself this as his steps grew smaller and smaller.
I'm not a child. This is not the twenty-fifth holding
But he had been a child.
And he had run, from the twenty-third to the twenty-fifth, with no clear idea of when he had crossed two boundaries. He had asked questions, endless questions, talking more in those hours than he had in months. Have you seen my mother? Have you seen my mother?
On that day, he had discovered that he was an orphan. He had looked death in the face, and he had sat by its side, crying in bewildered terror. He still woke sometimes, sweating, the cold, gray flesh of his mother's cheek beneath his hands. He had shaken her. He had shaken her body and when she hadn't responded, he'd hit her. To try to wake her, although he had never seen sleep like this. He had tried to drag her body home. He remembered that as well, because it was on the way home that he understood how helpless he was.
And it was on his way home that he had been saved by an angry angel, a stranger who inexplicably showed the kindness not even his mother had shown.
Had he been suspicious? Gods, yes.
But there was something about her narrowed eyes, her hunched shoulders, her liberal cursing, and the hair—which hadn't changed at all, even if she'd smoothed the rough edges off everything else—hanging in her eyes no matter how often she shoved it aside, that made her seem less auspicious than a miracle.
There was also something about the people she gave orders to that was less than angelic. He remembered Lefty best of all because it was Lefty who held the dagger. Duster hadn't come yet, although Jay'd found Arann and Carver by then. In just a few more months she would have almost all of the men and women who were Teller's family in everything but the flimsy tie of blood.
Lefty hadn't made it out of the twenty-fifth holding. Teller was certain, that day, that he probably wouldn't either—but anything was better than dying alone in an alley of starvation or worse.
And Jewel had offered to help him take his mother home. She made Arann do most of the heavy lifting because he was the biggest, even then, and while Teller cried, they'd followed his steps, had lifted his mother's body, had carried her into the building that had been his home for as long as he could remember.
They put her in the bed. Teller tucked her in. And then he'd fallen over, hugging her, terrified. Hugging her. She never hugged him back; that had been the last time.
Jay'd waited for him, outside. And when it had been long enough, she'd come back to get him. And he'd let her take him away.
Now, now he would have insisted on burying his mother.
Over time he had learned that Jewel
magic, and her magic took two forms, both of them equally precious, both intangible but unshakable. One: she could sometimes
the future. It hit her in dreams, in nightmares, in moments of sudden spasm as she walked at the heart of the den— protected on all sides by Angel, Arann, Carver, and Duster—through the city streets. And two, more precious: she was loyal. She chose her den for reasons no one ever questioned out loud, and she would