We had a rare day off today. When Shinytop heard we were planning to visit a local market, he said. ‘I can bring you somewhere much more interesting.’
We knew that that really meant he wanted to go somewhere interesting, and he wanted us to bring him.
‘What place? I asked.
‘Dayshop Alley. Not many know about it. If you have unique things to sell quickly and quietly you can hire a shop for a day there.’
‘Legal things?’ Aisling said.
‘No, but not illegal either. Somewhere in between. And the Guards never go there.’
My heart gave a little tremor. We’d long suspected that Shinytop probably knew more of the underground, secret places and things in this city than most. Until now, he’d never volunteered any information about them.
When Aisling gave me a nod, I stared into Shinytop’s painted eyes, and said, ‘Any tricks and you’ll stay in the armoury for a month.’
Oddly, the usual denials and promises didn’t follow, which I took as a good sign.
An hour later we were passing through the warren of streets and terraced cottages that made up the dockers’ quarter. Every street looked the same. Every cottage looked the same. And, after a while, the people, clad in dockers’ boots and multi-coloured woollens started to look the same too.
The smell of fish and salt was thick on the air. Ahead, the masts of deep-sea schooners loomed over the cottages. While I loved wandering the docks, anxiety grew in my gut this time. Shinytop was guiding us towards The Sponge. It was no more than a mile away, and a mile was closer than I wanted to get.
I was about to ask him about it when he said, ‘Next street to your right. Tell the watcher Dayshops.’
A boy was pretending to play marbles at the alley entrance, his eyes tracking us as we approached.
Aisling smiled at him, and said, ‘Dayshops.’
The boy looked us up and down before turning to the alley and whistling that sounded, impossibly like an old Beatles’ song. Moments later, locks unlocked, bolts rattled, doors creaked open. While most of the cottages stayed locked and silent, I saw at least four open doors. There were probably more. But the alley was so narrow only a strip of daylight passed down between the roofs and it was impossible to see too far.
We hurried past the first open cottage, because, with her yellow eyes and bone white skin, the woman beckoning us in resembled a corpse. Smelled like one as well. Free lavun wouldn’t have enticed me inside. Another woman emerged from the second door, and hissed, ‘I have fine ramptcloth. Reams of it. Special price only for today, young masters. Only for today.’
‘Keep moving,’ Shinytop said. ‘If the tax collectors catch you with smuggled rampcloth, you’ll not see the outside of the city gaol for ten years.’
The next open door was slowly closing, so I hurried ahead and grabbed the door handle. A small man, his face hidden behind a mat of grey-blue hair, peered out at me.
‘A wanderer,’ Shinytop whispered.
‘Wanderer?’ I asked.
‘They live in the unknown lands. Half mad, most of them. Be wary. Pretending to close the door was a ruse to arouse your interest.’
Behind the wanderer, half covered by a blanket, a cage sat in the centre of the room. A furry creature, that looked way too small for such a large cage, shifted about inside it.
‘What’s in the cage?’ I said, my curiosity growing by the second.
‘One of the rarest marvels that ever emerged from the Mountains of Duleen.’ The man rubbed his hands together, making a rasping sound that irritated my ears. ‘A true gem. An astonishment. A four-legged goldmine. And it’ll take gold to buy it. Do you have gold?’
‘Buckets of it’, Aisling said so adamantly I almost believed it myself.
We’d only a few pennies, but it didn’t cost anything to go inside and take a look. Then we could just say we weren’t interested, and leave. He beckoned us into the room. But when I tried to move closer to the cage, the wanderer blocked my way.
‘Stay back,’ he hissed. ‘Don’t want to frighten it too soon. It’ll waste it’s . . . magic.’
The wanderer tapped on the cage. ‘This, my friends, is a guaranteed income for the rest of your lives. Set up a travelling show. Take to the road. Wherever you display it, it’ll shock and stupefy, terrify and threaten, amaze and astonish.’
The man whipped off the blanket and kicked the cage so hard it almost toppled over.
I heard a hiss from within the cage. A puff of mist emerged from the creature’s mouth. And as the mist expanded, the thing’s face expanded too, swelling up so rapidly I backed up in case it burst out through the bars. Its eyes became footballs, its teeth sabres, its forelegs thick as logs and tipped with claws that glinted in the gloom.
The man tossed the blanket over the cage. ‘Twenty gold coins, and it’s yours.’
Speechless, I gaped at the cage.
‘Fear not,’ the man said. ‘The monster casts an illusion. The queer breath it emits magnifies its features to intimidate anything that threatens it. Lasts less than a minute.’
He whipped the blanket away, revealing the small furry thing, which was now whining and gaping at us with wide, sorry eyes.
‘Do you have twenty coins?’ the wanderer demanded.
Dragging me aside, Aisling flashed the wanderer a smile, and said, ‘I need to talk to my business partner.’
‘No time for talk. Have you gold or not?’
‘That poor thing,’ Aisling whispered in my ear. ‘This is so abominably cruel. We have to free it.’
I felt exactly the same. Actually, I felt sick at the thoughts of the life the creature faced if we didn’t do something. ‘We’ve only got pennies?’
‘Maybe bargain with him. I’ve Irish money. And maybe give him something from back home. It’ll be like a treasure.’
Though it sounded good, we’d promised Ganhook that we’d never introduce anything from our world into Dunari unless our lives were threatened. Then the creature made a little mewling sound and I wondered if we just shouldn’t go ahead and offer the wanderer one of our flashlights or some other ‘magical’ otherworldly thing.
As if reading my mind, Aisling sighed. ‘No. Forget that. We can’t give him anything from back home. But Shinytop can help.’
‘What?’ Shinytop hissed. ‘Swap me for that thing and Ganhook will . . .’
‘You’ve gold hidden around the city,’ Aisling said.
‘No. I don’t.’
Aisling grabbed the stick. ‘You’re always bragging about your hidden stockpiles. Now’s the time to use them. We must rescue this thing. It’s vital.’
‘True,’ I said, annoyed I hadn’t thought of it first. During his thieving days, Shinytop had hidden his spoils in different places. We’d uncovered a chest of gold before, on an island far up the Stymet River.
‘No gold,’ Shinytop croaked. ‘Stein Cat has lots of gold.’
‘Have you decided?’ the man asked, his tone hardening.
‘Shinytop,’ I hissed. ‘We need your help. The creature needs your help.’
‘No. Impossible. Most of the gold is hidden far beyond the city. There is one cache here, but . . . I cannot go to the . . .’
When Shinytop’s words tailed away, I almost cracked him off the wall. But there was a tone to his voice, a desperation that I’d never heard before. And it bothered me. ‘Please,’ I whispered.
‘Shinytop?’ Aisling said, her voice tailing off into a growl that set my pulse thrumming.
‘I . . . can’t,’ Shinytop replied.
A loud rap echoed around the room. Turning, I saw two men dressed in leather coats standing in the doorway. ‘Would we find something of interest here?’ one asked.
‘Not simply of interest,’ the wanderer said. ‘But of the most incredible fascination. Enter. Let me demonstrate.’
And as the men marched in, the wanderer shoved us outside, shouted curses at us for wasting his time, and locked the door.
Neither of us were interested in going deeper into Dayshop Alley. We lingered in silence outside the door for a while until we heard a crash followed by a hiss inside. We retreated to the top of the alley. And when the two men emerged carrying the cage between them, I felt numb with helplessness and despair.
I turned to Aisling, but her face was crimson with anger, so I said nothing.
‘Shinytop,’ she hissed. ‘Shame on you for this.’
‘I’m sorry. I . . .’
I’d never heard Shinytop apologise before and it felt wrong, unnatural. I’d have preferred if he’d been his usual, annoyingly stupid self. He could have led us to enough gold to outbid the other buyers. He knew this. We all knew this. But he hadn’t, and though I despised him for it, I also knew there must be a good reason.
We left Dayshop Alley and walked home in silence. Inside, though, my guts were twisted, and my mind was reeling.
We were otherworlders. I was a Dawnhunter. Aisling was almost a Dawnhunter. We knew things about magic, combat, monsters and all manner of other stuff. Yet we couldn’t even save a helpless furry thing trapped in a cage.
I felt an utter failure.