Billy wished he knew why he constantly stopped and stared at the guardroom in the courthouse when he had to pass by.
Although, come to think of it, he often wished he knew just why it was that the guardroom had such huge windows, so prime for staring. If Billy had designed the room, he would have given it smaller windows, much higher up. He couldn’t imagine that a guard, who spent so much of his day watching other people, would like the constant feeling of someone watching him.
Not that Billy ever saw guards in here, except for that one time. They probably had better things to do than sit around a card table and ostensibly keep an eye on the prisoners in the cells just beyond the room. (The prisoners had windows that were much smaller and much higher up, so at least the builders had shown some common sense.) Or, more likely, Albion was still a small kingdom, and Avilion still a growing town. There were only so many prisoners to go around, and most of them tended to end up in the capital sooner rather than later — especially now that Sir William was away and there was nobody here in Avilion to take his place.
Billy sighed and turned away from the window. He really didn’t have time to be lollygagging — or stickin’ yer nose against windows that ain’t yer own like a hooligan-child, added the voice of his mother in his head. His mother wanted, no, needed some more barley-flour, and Billy had been dispatched to fetch them. So, fetch them he would, and come right back, just like his mother had told him to.
Billy just wished that so much of his life wasn’t doing what his mother said. He didn’t mind a favor or an errand or two. And he shouldn’t be complaining. It was just him and his mother now, and somebody had to watch out for Kata in her old age. And Roma, too, with that husband of hers. At least Ella seemed to be getting by all right, even with Goodman Pelles’s death, which was good, because even if she wasn’t she’d send Billy away with a flea in his ear for so much as thinking about trying to help her. So Billy was lucky, really, it could be so much worse.
But damn it, wasn’t he allowed to have some fun, too?
He trudged to the little vegetable shop, shoulders hunched, trying to outwalk the traitorous thoughts. He was twelve now, almost a man. He didn’t have time to be moaning and whining about fun. He’d have fun when he … when he …
Well, he’d find time for it sooner or later. He pushed open the shop door and pulled it closed before too much of the bitter wind could infiltrate the shop.
Standing over by the barley-flour was another boy, just about Billy’s age, maybe a little older.
Not that Billy cared. This wasn’t a boy who went to school with him or anything. Just another boy of Avilion. There were lots of other boys in Avilion.
It was too bad that few of them wanted much to do with Billy. That day he had defended Thorn from Matteo hadn’t made him many friends. And that had been before it got around that Billy was half-brother to the infamous brothel madam. Boys had been claiming to have gotten into bed with his sister since they had all started to figure out what it meant, really meant, to get into bed with somebody.
This boy probably wouldn’t be any different. Billy set his shoulders and marched up to the bags of barley-flour, meaning to grab one and go before the other boy could figure out who he was.
He barely had a chance to look at the bags before the other boy glanced at him, grinned, and said, “So you’re doing time too, eh?”
Billy jumped. “Sorry?”
“Oh … sorry.” The other boy reddened and rubbed the back of his neck. “I just thought …”
“What?” Billy asked, unable to keep the slight curiosity out of his tone.
The boy smiled nervously. “Well — my mum sent me out for some flour … you looked like you were in the same boat. But I guess I was –”
“No — no, she did. Barley flour,” Billy replied.
“Barley flour,” the boy repeated. “Is that good?”
“… I guess?” Billy shrugged.
“It’s just, she didn’t say what kind of flour …” The boy stroked his chin. “And there are so many different kinds here …”
Billy glanced at the bags of flour. There was barley flour — spelt flour — rye flour — and of course wheat flour, but that was expensive. “She didn’t say what kind?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, that’s odd. Me ma always says what kind.”
“My mum never does.”
The boy looked at the different types of flour and shrugged. “I think it’s ’cause you take what you can get in Bledavik.”
“Bleda–the pirate island?” Billy blurted out in awe.
He expected offense in reply. How many times had Billy huffed and stamped and snorted when somebody dared to bring up that his sister was a whore — his brother a Plantsim — and his father had been a Plantsim, too, for a while? When somebody brought those things up, you didn’t waste your time arguing that there was nothing wrong with being a Plantsim. You just squared your shoulders and asked, in your lowest, most menacing tone, if they wanted to say that again.
But this boy didn’t do any of that. He just grinned. “Aye!”
Billy could only blink in awe. “The — the real pirate island?”
“Ye’ve been there?”
“Born and raised!” the other boy replied. Then he grinned nervously and rubbed the back of his head. “Well … mostly raised. And not strictly born. But Mum was trying to get back when I decided I was coming, if that counts for anything.”
“If … if ye say so,” Billy replied slowly. Well, that certainly topped the time Lyndsay almost gave birth at the market. Come to think of it, that probably topped most of his mother’s stories. “I — I’m Billy Thatcher, by the way.” He stuck out his hand, man to man.
The other boy took it and gave it a quick shake, as if he did this every day. “Jack Andavri.”
“Oh — ye’re the family that runs the …” Drat, he couldn’t say what his mother called it — junk that’s jest old an’ from far away! — but what else to call it?
“The antique shop, aye,” Jack replied. “And a lot of junk. But don’t tell my dad I said that.”
Billy could only grin in slightly sickened relief.
“Hey,” Jack added, “you know, I saw a dancer outside just a minute ago. Want to go watch her show?”
Why, Billy wondered, would he be interested in watching a dancer? They were fine if you happened to be walking by, but —
“She’s good, too,” Jack added. “Keeping warm enough that it doesn’t matter that her belly’s showing, but …”
Billy didn’t hear the rest. But he was, all of a sudden, very, very interested all the same.
“Sounds great!” He grabbed the first bag of barley flour that came to hand, grabbed another and tossed it to Jack. Jack grinned, and they both hurried to the shop boy to pay.
With Billy’s luck, the flour would be half-spoiled, with mites and bugs crawling throughout. But he didn’t care. This he had to see. Jack seemed to be of the same mind, or near enough, given the way he followed behind Billy’s cracking pace.
Unfortunately, Billy had no choice but to stumble to a halt at the edge of the stairs.
“Sorry, lads,” said the dancer, gamely taking Billy’s slack-jawed astonishment for disappointment. “Need ter take a break, catch me breath. I’ll be dancin’ again in a quarter mark, though.”
“What are we going to do for a quarter mark?” wondered Jack. Billy wondered how it was, now that the dancer wasn’t moving, that she wasn’t getting frostbite.
What would frostbite in one’s middle be like? Billy had heard that men lost toes and fingers to frostbite. To get frostbite on your stomach …
And the snow was piled almost up to her — her — bosom! How was she even sitting like that?
“Hey!” Jack nudged Billy and gestured in the direction of the courtyard. “Do you see what I see?”
Billy looked. All he saw was the courthouse — and a guard in front of it — but the courthouse had been there for years. “Er … no …”
“The –” Jack grabbed Billy’s arm and dragged him away from the dancer, who barely seemed to paying attention to them. (More’s the pity, sighed part of Billy’s soul — if it was his soul that was sighing.) “The guard!” Jack whispered.
“Um … what about ‘im?”
“Let’s have some fun with him!”
“… Ye’re jokin’, right?” Billy asked.
“No! No, hear me out!” Jack leaned in and whispered his plan into Billy’s ear. “It’ll be awesome! In and out, easy! And he won’t even be expecting it!”
Billy stood on tiptoe to get a better look over Jack’s head. He was forced to scratch his own head. “I still don’t get it. Sorry, Jack.”
“… Oh.” Jack rubbed the back of his neck again. “It’s … somethin’ we used to do all the time in Bledavik …”
Billy’s attention snapped back to Jack.
He saw it, too: there was no mistaking the way his eyes lit up for anything else. If Jack’s dad was anything like him, he was probably in the right business, selling antiques. And junk. “‘Cause it snows all the time, you see. And there’s always somebody standing around, not doin’ much …”
Billy looked again at the guard. “So why d’ye need two people?”
“You can have more than two! You just need at least two!”
“… But why?”
“So you can split up if things go bad!”
Billy considered that, and somewhat to his surprise, found it made sense. “All right, I’m in.”
“Awesome!” Jack grinned. “He’s never gonna know what hit him!”
Billy couldn’t quite hold back his snicker to hear that.
And then Jack did something else that was incomprehensible: he stuck his fist out sideways and knocked it against the open palm of his other hand. “Ready?”
“What are ye doin’?”
“Well, we gotta decide who’s doin’ it!”
“We could flip a coin, then? I guess.”
“Bah, where’s the fun in that? Come on!” Jack kept his hands placed the way they were, and Billy kept staring at them. “Billy, you’re acting like you’ve never played a game of rock-cloth-scissors in your life.”
“A game of what?”
Jack’s mouth opened, it closed, he blinked. “You’ve never heard of that?”
“It’s a game from Smina! You play it with your hands. Look — cloth,” he spread the fist out, “is cut by scissors,” he closed all the fingers but two and waggled them like the blades of a pair of scissors, “and the scissors are crushed by the rock,” he made a fist again, “which is covered by the cloth.”
“And so …”
“Look, you just pick one, and I’ll pick one, and when I say rock-cloth-scissors shoot, we both show the other what he’s picked, savvy?”
Billy narrowed his eyes. “All … right …”
Jack leaned forward, knees bent, torso thrust forward, face scrunched with concentration. His fist hovered over an open palm. Billy did his best to copy his stance.
“Rock-cloth-scissors, shoot!” Jack cried.
The results of that were best described as thoroughly predictable.
“Hah! I win!”
“What — how did ye — I picked the rock!” Billy protested.
“And cloth covers rock,” Jack grinned.
“But that don’t even make sense!”
“Sense? Who said anything about making sense? It’s a game, Billy-boy!” Jack smacked his shoulder with a grin. “But if you’re dying for another chance to be defeated … well, let’s go two out of three, aye?”
Another chance to be defeated, me arse! Billy would show him, aye, he would show Jack if it was the last thing he did!
Unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to do much showing the next round. Jack threw out a scissors, and so did Billy. “Huh,” Jack murmured, “I was sure you’d do cloth.”
Jack shrugged. “Most do. Anyway, it’s still one-zip, so hit me with your best shot, Billy.”
The next time, Billy got lucky — Jack picked rock, and Billy went for cloth. Jack’s eyebrows went up. “Nice one, nice one, boy-o. So we’re neck and neck.”
But not for long: the next round saw Jack try cloth, while Billy went for scissors. And the results of that could only be called completely predictable.
For a moment, the taste of victory was so sweet on Billy’s tongue that he forgot what victory actually meant. But then again — what did it matter? If Billy was running the risk of being caught by a guard for making mischief, didn’t he want to be the one making the mischief? What was the fun of running away and being somebody else’s insurance?
Jack took it well, too, only grinning. “Nice one, buddy. Good luck!”
“Thanks …” Billy made his preparations, stowed them behind his back, never mind how cold they made his hands, squared his shoulders and marched his way to the guard.
“Good morrow, sir,” he said, wearing his most innocent grin. “It’s a fine day, ain’t it?”
Billy could only wonder what Jack was up to behind him — he hoped he wasn’t being too obvious —
Who was Billy kidding? Jack couldn’t be that stupid. He used to do this on a regular basis to pirates. Pirates with cutlasses and hooks for hands! What could a creaky, arthritic Albionese guard have against a pirate?
Not even a clever rejoinder, apparently. “Sod off, kid,” the guard muttered gruffly. “Some o’ us have work to do.”
Well, there went any guilt Billy might have bothered to feel over what he was about to do.
“In a minute, sir, but I wanted ter axe — hey, is that Lady Morgause?”
“What?” the guard yelped, turning around.
It was mean, it truly was. Especially since the guard turned around in half a panic. Maybe Lady Morgause wasn’t the type of name you took in vain — but who else could Billy call? All the other criminals he knew of were dead. Well, so was Lady Morgause, but she had been an evil witch. Sometimes, those types did come back.
“Ye stupid kid!” the guard yelled. “There’s nobody there! Are ye mad, or are ye just –”
“KID! KID! STUPID KID! GET BACK HERE!”
Billy turned on his heel and took off, the cold winter air chilling his lungs with each panting laugh. He could hear Jack following him at a somewhat more leisurely pace.
“YE DAMNED KIDS! GET BACK HERE IF YE KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FER YE!”
Billy could hardly run for laughing — it wasn’t long before Jack caught up. “Come on, come on!” Jack yelped, grabbing Billy’s sleeve. “Hurry up!”
They ran halfway down the block, then Jack dragged Billy around the corner of a shop and ducked back to check. “Ha! I knew it! He isn’t even followin’!”
“What? Are ye jestin’?”
“See for your–no, on second thought, you probably don’t want to do that,” mused Jack. “Let me ask you this, Billy. Would I just be standin’ here if he was followin’ us?”
Billy panted and used that to cover up his considering. “Ye bring up a good point.”
“Told you!” Jack threw up his hands and laughed. “See! That was amazing!”
It wasn’t that amazing, Billy thought. Maybe it was even rather stupid. What had he done other than annoy a guard who had never done anything to him? It certainly wasn’t very … very …
He could barely even think, he was laughing so hard.
“Wright, that was fun!”
“Ye did that all the time in Bledavik?” Billy asked.
“It snows all the time, and unless you’re of an age to be visiting the ladies, there’s not much to do,” Jack shrugged. “Come on, let’s go find somebody else!”
That would be irresponsible. Immature. Just stupid. And Billy had to get the barley flour home to his mother. She was waiting, and counting on him, and who else was there for her to count on?
Except … except what Jack said sounded like so much fun …
Aw, what the hell.
“Aye!” Billy agreed. “Let’s do it!”
He’d get to be a kid again for one afternoon, so help him Wright.