We had been living small, Gareth and I, and no one troubled us. We shared a room in Siltspar, the seaport district of South Jericho, above a pub called The Southern Anchor near the docks. It filled up each week with new faces on shore leave belting shanties in strange languages, but until that evening no shadow had fallen between us.
It was payday. We were walking back together along the docks, meager wages in our pockets, and the sea-breeze had lulled for a moment as if the district were taking a breath before hard-earned coin began to slip easy from fingers, when we heard the crack of a pistol. In Siltspar it’s a dull payday if the rising moon doesn’t shine down on carousing, gambling, and brawls.
When we heard the shot, we stopped short and looked around, prepared to take shelter if the violence was coming our way.
A man burst out of an alley to our right, sprinting down the plankway. His boot snagged on a loose board as he passed us, and Gareth reached out and grabbed a fistful of his filthy shirt to keep him from falling. The man paused and took a heaving breath, then looked up into Gareth’s face.
He must have liked what he saw. He spoke hurriedly with a Nazreen accent: “Thanks, Mate.”
Then he looked over his shoulder at the shadows boiling in the alley where he’d appeared.
“Hang onto these for me, would you?” he said.
He slapped something in paper against Gareth’s chest, and Gareth grabbed it by reflex. Before he could respond, the man threw himself forward and began running down the docks again.
His pursuers emerged from the alley: three men in the sea-green uniform of Siltspar’s watch. They paid us no mind and dashed after the stranger. One raised a short, fat pistol and fired again, and we saw our new acquaintance, yards down the plankway, lurch sideways, clutching his chest, and pitch headfirst off the dock into the water.
I felt Gareth tense beside me, and I knew he wanted to dive in and keep the man from drowning. But violence in Siltspar is like grime on the bottom of a tankard, unavoidable, part of the flavor, and you can’t stick your fingers into every mess that comes along, particularly if it involves the Watch. I took Gareth’s arm in a tight grip; he understood, and he remained still.
Only a cloud of thick red bubbles marked where the man had gone down. The watch clustered on the dock above him, discussing something, until it became clear the man would not be surfacing again. Then they walked away into the evening like sharks robbed of their prey.
Gareth and I looked at each other. He opened the paper package. It held a thin silver necklace with a small, beaten silver pendant in the shape of a thorn.
“I know what this is,” I said. I took it, fingered the thorn and measured its strange weight and watched it glitter with more than reflected light. “There’s power in this. A sacrifice I think.” I looked around to see if anyone was watching us. This was the sort of prize you killed for. Obviously it had been stolen.
I hadn’t touched an object infused with a sacrifice in a long time, but I knew the sensation well.
Gareth didn’t ask how I knew, and I didn’t tell him, not yet.
I raised my eyes to his face and saw something I’d never seen before. Hope. Only that prevented me from dropping the chain into the harbor like I wanted to, letting the whole incident wash over us and recede. I handed back the chain, and he put it in his pocket.
We walked to The Southern Anchor in silence, found a table, and spent some of our pay on a hot loaf of bread, a roast chicken, curried vegetables, and ale. Gareth pulled out the chain and puddled its links between us on the table. He wrapped his hands around his tankard. They were rough-skinned, scratched and calloused from work, and—I knew—so gentle. I longed to hold them.
“We could sell it,” I said, on impulse. “And then we could go away. Anywhere you want. We could pay for your training. Or buy a farm. Or a boat.”
Gareth didn’t say anything. I wondered what he was thinking about, and it reminded me that we were separate people, with different memories hidden in our separate bodies. The silence stretched so long I began to wonder if I’d broken what was between us by conjuring a joint future; as if it could only exist unspoken. Then Gareth took a gulp of ale, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and shook his head.
“If it’s stolen,” he said, “we could get in big trouble selling it.”
I hesitated, made up my mind to say that we didn’t have to sell it, that we could use its power ourselves, but he muttered something into his cup.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I have a—” He broke off and fortified himself with another gulp of ale.
What he was going to say? I have an idea? A problem? A really good joke I want to share? Then he started over, speaking quietly, not looking up.
“I have a confession to make.”
But he didn’t make it then, and I didn’t press him.
Soon after I had first arrived in Siltspar, I began working as a longshoreman, loading and unloading the ships, receiving my wages from the paymaster once a week. It was there I first saw Gareth. He collected payments for a money-lender.
He sat by an iron box near the paymaster so that men with fresh wages wouldn’t miss him in their haste to go spend their money, and I wondered about him. He was beautiful, in a city where young men were mostly broken by work and violence and poverty and lust. His job shouldn’t have made him any friends, but everybody treated him with respect. He didn’t have to call out or stare down his boss’s debtors for their copper. They’d see him and his iron box and veer aside to pay up of their own accord, while he sat, aloof and abstractedly smiling—the money-lender’s angel. I considered taking out a loan so I’d have a reason to speak with him. Fortunately, I was never that stupid.
One day I had just walked past him when I heard a deep voice. I looked back and stopped walking. A big sailor, with arms the size of Gareth’s head, had sauntered up and flipped open the collection box, slurring a monologue to himself. He stuck a fat fist in and pulled out a handful of coins, staring straight into Gareth’s face. He was drunk—he had to be, to do something so dumb.
A few other longshoremen were frowning at the scene. But that man’s arms were big. In Siltspar, you learned to pick your battles.
Gareth blinked uncertainly, like it was hard to stoop from the clouds where his head was to the situation in front of him. I felt I should intervene, but I’m not a big man myself.
The sailor decided no one was going to stop him, he could do what he liked, and he turned his back on Gareth with the coppers clutched in his massive paw. I admit, I sighed with relief as the possibility of a confrontation dwindled. But Gareth stood up from behind his table.
“Put that back,” he said.
It was the first I’d heard his voice. It fit badly with the rest of him. It was a hoarse voice, and it caused me to revise his age upward.
The big sailor smiled. He turned back to Gareth. And then a funny thing happened. I guess the sailor really was very drunk, because before he could respond to Gareth, he trembled. His face turned grey, and he released his grip on the coins. They clattered onto the dock, and the sailor fell to his knees. He hung his head and started retching.
To my surprise, Gareth, instead of seizing on his antagonist’s sudden illness and securing the coins, dropped down beside the sailor. He put an arm around the big man’s shoulders and tucked the man’s lank hair behind his ear with the other hand, so he wouldn’t soil it vomiting. He sat like that, comforting the man who had tried to rob him until his nausea spent itself. The man looked at Gareth, and all the malice ebbed from his eyes. He dragged himself upright and hurried away.
Watching that, I felt something welling up in me I’d never felt before. It wasn’t lust, or not only that. I envied the big sailor who had tried to rob Gareth and had felt his gentle hands instead.
The day after we came into possession of the necklace, I ate my lunch on the quarterdeck of a merchantman out of Nacre. I’d been unloading its heavy barrels of wine all morning. I chewed cold chicken and hard bread from the night before. Hot sunlight dried my sweat. Sea-breeze kissed my face.
I leaned on the deck-rail and contemplated my city. I searched the low, dirty jumble of the Siltspar district for the peaked roof of The Southern Anchor. I’d felt very aware of it all morning, and the room within it, and the bed in the room, and the sacrifice-infused chain tucked beneath the blankets. All morning, I had been clumsy in my work, distracted. Every time I saw the uniform of the watch, my heart sped up as if I had committed a crime. At the same time, I suddenly felt at a distance from Siltspar; the whole district seemed smaller, now that we might possibly be able to leave it, instead of laboring here until our bodies decayed and we joined the beggars in the streets, or we died in a cargo accident or were casually knifed in the raucous dark.
I’d hoped never to be in proximity to a sacrifice or its effects, ever again, but the chain’s mere presence changed things. It burst the bubble in which we lived from week to week, ignoring the past and not thinking about the future.
It had to be dealt with.
The first time I spoke with Gareth was the day I saw the sailor try to steal from him. I waited until the paymaster closed his window and Gareth stood up and tucked the box under his arm. Then I approached and asked him if he would care to drink with me.
He didn’t say anything, but I fell in beside him as he walked, and he didn’t object. We went along the docks to a locked warehouse where Gareth knocked on the door and delivered his box to the pale arms that emerged from the shadows. Then we walked back into Siltspar to The Southern Anchor. I didn’t live there yet, but I drank there.
Already it felt right. Our strides matched up like we’d been traveling together for years. The slight heat of Gareth’s body, the way his silhouette filled up my peripheral vision, felt like the supply of something I had been missing without knowing it. I wanted him to stay there.
We sat across from each other as we ate the first of many meals together. It was a raucous public house, filled with singing and shouting, the slap of playing cards and rattle of dice on wooden tables, the tramp of booted feet, doors slamming and cheap windows rattling. Gazing at each for the first time, for us it was as if all that background noise receded. We could speak in soft voices and hear each other.
When I told him I admired the way he did a hateful job without being hated, he replied, “It’s fine, but I’m going to quit soon.”
I asked him why.
“Because I’m almost free,” he told me. He didn’t say of what.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “what will you do instead?”
“There’s always work for a man on the docks.”
I nodded, sadly. Work there was, but it ground your body down. My own, still young and strong, already ached at the end of every day.
But he continued, “What I’d really like is to be a healer.”
“I know it takes training, and that takes money. But I can already read, so I could do the training. And I have the art in my fingertips, you know. I can feel where people ail.”
Somehow, this didn’t surprise me. I was already entranced by his fingers, the way they did ordinary things with grace, moving precisely but smoothly from point to point; breaking a crust of bread, flicking a crumb from the table.
When our food was almost gone, Gareth suddenly waxed philosophical. “What’s most important,” he told me, “is to get in the black with the universe. To lend more than you’re owed. You know?”
I nodded, thinking he was talking literally, like a moneylender, but he continued.
“I keep a running balance in my head. Good things I’ve done, and bad. The only way to come out on top, for me, I think, is to become a healer.” And I saw he was talking about something bigger than money.
After dinner we walked back along the docks.
“Thanks for the food,” said Gareth. “You’re good to talk to. You listen. I’m sorry if I bored you.”
The docks were a different place at night, the few smoky torches no competition for the blazing stars above the sea.
“Let’s eat together again, tomorrow,” I said, and reached out on impulse and took his hand. He didn’t tense or draw it back, or even look down at where we touched.
That’s how all the best things were for us: unspoken.
“Alright,” he said. “Tomorrow.”
And he vanished down the docks toward the warehouses. I waited until I could no longer hear the sigh of boards beneath his feet.
Gareth said nothing more about wanting to become a healer, even when he finally quit the money-lender’s employ and became a longshoreman like me; even when our meals at The Southern Anchor extended into nights in one its rooms. But I remembered. I started to keep aside a few coppers of my pay each week, stuffed under the pallet on our bed. It added up very slowly. I didn’t know how much it would cost to train a healer. A lot, probably. When we came into possession of the chain, it had a bed of coppers to lie on.
We’d had that object of power for almost a week when we finally discussed it. My eyes were tired and dry from staring at the ceiling in our room, tortured by the knowledge of the chain below our mattress and what it represented: the possibility of a different life, but also a curse. I told Gareth we had to decide what to do with it, right now.
Smoky orange fingers of sunset were creeping into a purple sky, and we sat, legs dangling, at the furthest end of the furthest dock, all alone above the sea. The din of rowdy Siltspar murmured distantly behind us.
“How do you use it?” said Gareth.
“You understand what a sacrifice is?” I said.
“Not really,” he admitted.
“In some religions, they have a ritual. If a volunteer with life ahead of them agrees to it, a priest can put their life force in a sanctified object. All the work they might have done in the life remaining to them is stored up as pure power.”
“The volunteer dies?”
“Yes. They’re killed in the ritual.”
“Why would anybody do that?”
“For children, for love, for guilt, for devotion, to pay a debt—all kinds of reasons.”
Gareth held up the chain. The sunset made it glitter red.
“There’s a life in here?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “It’s more of a reminder, like a banknote issued by a god. What really happens is, the priest who managed the sacrifice gives the volunteer’s life to the god, in exchange for a divine intervention in the future. It’s like a coin that can be used to buy divine power.”
“A coin, that I understand,” said Gareth. “Would we need a priest to use it?”
I looked away from him, out into the water’s inky depths.
“I can make it work,” I said.
Gareth was silent for a long time. I didn’t press him. I could tell he was working up to saying something. I thought it would probably be a suggestion of how we use the chain. But he surprised me.
“I used to torture people.”
I looked at him. He had that expression I remembered on his face when he would sit with the money-lender’s box. Angelic abstraction, head in the clouds.
“Really?” I said.
“My parents worked for Desmoth, too,” he said, referring to the moneylender. “Mum died when I was little, but my father was an enforcer. I grew up playing in the warehouses.” He gestured toward the dark buildings behind us. “He made people pay up, did Dad. But he was stupid. He got into debt himself. I don’t even know why he needed the money. Eventually, he owed so much that Desmoth locked him up. Probably afraid he’d run. I made a deal. I’d work for him until I paid off my father’s debt.”
I’d heard of things like this before. It was how crooks kept whole families in their thrall, one generation laboring to pay off the debts of the last.
Gareth had fallen silent. I looked over at him and saw tears running down his cheeks.
“That’s why you collected money for him?” I asked.
“No, that was later,” said Gareth. “Turns out,” and he spread his hands carefully on his knees, “these fingers know where the pain is. They can find it. They can make it better. Or they can make it worse. Desmoth had use for that.”
I thought about what those fingers had done for me.
“I did that for a while, but my father died before I could pay what he owed. After that I refused to hurt people anymore, and Desmoth put me in charge of the collection box instead.”
“You did what you had to,” I said, and immediately regretted it. I remembered what he’d told me about wanting not to owe the universe more than he’d given. What a monstrous debt he must be laboring under. I knew what that felt like. You had to come to terms with it yourself. No amount of consolation could bring you peace. That kind of guilt could kill you. I felt useless.
But I was glad Gareth had told me his secret.
I took the chain from him and stowed it in my pocket. We could deal with that later.
“Look,” I said, “let’s walk, let’s go someplace. Out of Siltspar.”
He smiled at me, a sad smile that said, I know what you’re doing, it won’t help anything, but sure, let’s go.
As we walked I took his hand. Those fine, precise fingers dangled limp, but their touch still tingled on my skin.
The other districts of South Jericho are all uphill from Siltspar. We were too dirty for the Spire and in no mood for Nightlace, so we walked up into Soddenside, past its quiet row-houses. Soddensiders don’t stay up past nine, so we had the gaslit streets to ourselves.
“It’s so strange to be alone,” said Gareth. A dog brushed past us, rushing from one alley to another.
“We live in a hive,” I said.
“I forget there are places where it’s quiet sometimes.”
I wondered where we would go from here. Though I felt closer to Gareth now that he’d told me the secret that weighed on him, I also felt that the past had been awakened, and it was reaching for the future with dead fingers. I imagined the succession of future nights, groping for each other in the shadows as acrid Siltspar filled our nostrils and the sounds of riotous nightlife disturbed our peace.
Then Gareth said something, surprising me, reminding me how separate and individual we still were.
“Let’s run,” he said, pointing ahead of us, where the street angled down the far shoulder of Soddenside’s hill, to the district’s beach. And, releasing my hand, he took off. I stood a stunned two seconds, then dashed after him.
In the dark, running downhill, I felt like I was flying. I laughed and remembered that we were young and healthy.
We arrived breathless on the beach and splashed to a halt in the water. The beach was washed by the same sea as the docks, but silence and clean sand made it feel like a different world. We took off our shoes and kneaded the warm sand with our toes.
The chain had shifted in my pocket as we ran, and I could feel the hard knot of it against my thigh. We began to walk along the beach, which would eventually take us around Soddenside and back to the docks. Gareth’s silhouette was sharp against the sea and dark purple night sky.
“I also have a confession,” I said.
Gareth didn’t respond; just continued walking beside me, receptively.
“I’ve killed people. My parents were Almohetians. Almoha granted their prayers when they were caught in the plague that struck Nazeer, and they made it out alive. They decided they owed it to Her to consecrate their firstborn. So when I was born, they gave me up to the Almohetian priesthood. I was raised to handle the knife. An altar boy, they called me. I must have slit a hundred throats. I would catch the blood in silver ewers.”
“That’s even worse than what Desmoth made me do,” said Gareth, in a low voice.
Maybe it was, I thought, or maybe not. I wasn’t sure how you could weigh these things against each other.
“I was killing people before I was old enough to think about whether it was right or wrong,” I said. “I remember their faces, down where I could see them while the priest stared at the sky chanting the ritual. They were all volunteers, but sometimes they regretted it, at the last moment, after they were trussed up like cattle on the altar. I could see it in their eyes, wild, right before I killed them.”
We walked around the curve of the beach, and Siltspar came back into view, smoky and bright-lit in the distance.
“So, you ran away,” said Gareth.
“No,” I said. “When I came of age, the Almohetians let me choose whether to complete my training and join the priesthood or go my own way. They gave me their blessing when I left. Not that it mattered at that point, they’d already done their worst.”
Gareth took my hand. His deft torturer’s fingers wrapped around my blood-stained executioner’s.
After our mutual revelations, it made so much sense to me why we had been attracted to one another. Somehow it must have shown on our faces, and we recognized it before we really knew one another. It almost seemed inevitable.
“We shouldn’t use the chain at all,” said Gareth. He shivered. “We don’t deserve it. We’re overdrawn against the world. We’ve used up all our grace.”
The despair in his voice was like the ground falling out from under me.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said. “We’re still young. We could still do anything. You make it sound like we’re dying.”
But I knew he would never change his mind, and that I didn’t want him to. This was exactly what I had been dreading. His vision of a cosmic balance sheet and a hopeless debt had infected me.
We brought the chain to the office of the watch. The officer on duty eyed us as we explained how we had come into possession of it. I could see the question forming in his eyes: whether we had killed the man it belonged to. If so, why would we give up our prize? He found us unnatural, operating by no known principle of life in Siltspar. An act of voluntary law-abiding was almost more suspicious than natural self-serving criminality. But he had no grounds to detain us. He would probably just take the chain for himself.
Afterward, we trudged silently down Siltspar’s alleys, back toward The Southern Anchor. The crescendo of a shore-leave night was approaching its midnight climax. Drunken sailors lurched past us, shouted from the windows of taverns and inns, spilled into the street embracing or fighting.
Gareth and I retired to our room, knowing that another day of lifting and carrying, ache and sweat, lay before us, and another and another. I wrapped my arms around him, and we lay with both our faces turned toward the moonlit window.
“Thank you,” he said, in the dark with his hoarse voice.
“For understanding that some debts have to be paid.” And he fell asleep in my arms, somehow more at ease now that he had given up the hope that briefly dangled before us.
I thought of the money beneath the bed, the coppers I had been saving from my weekly pay, the little stash I had crouched above in snatched moments over the past week when Gareth was briefly absent, multiplying it with the power of the sacrifice in the chain, even though each priestly incantation I murmured brought back horrifying visions of terrified eyes and bleeding throats and gave my nightmares greater power. I had done this furtively, guiltily, suspecting beforehand that Gareth would never agree to use it or sell it.
Secrets were stealing back into our relationship already. Yet with them came those cracks of light, those filaments of hope that make the future bearable. As I held Gareth in my arms, moonlight through the dirt on our window illuminating his tired face and roughened skin, I thought how I would offer him all that money, someday, and pretend I had saved it up. He would accept it from me, and study healing, and begin, I hoped, to pay down the debt he thought he owed. And it would ease my own guilt to give him that.