Beneath the Keep - Erika Johansen Page 0,1

with the embroidered insignia of their guild visible on their shoulders . . . even a couple of frocks from the Arvath, their white robes conspicuous among the dark mass of the crowd, gold twinkling around their necks. The men shouted encouragement, pounding Christian on the shoulder, breathing ale in his face. Wigan bared his brown teeth and bathed in their approval, shouting greetings to those he knew, as one would to friends, but Christian knew that Wigan was nothing to them. Christian was the prize, the object of value, and the reason was simple: he never lost.

“Crush him, boy!”

“Kill that idiot!”

Peering through the crowd, Christian saw that it was indeed Brendan Maartens standing in the ring, his face white in the torchlight. At age fourteen, Maartens was already approaching six feet and had arms like great slabs of stone. But he was also slow, and not just in speed. Maartens barely knew how to talk. Like Christian, he had been in the ring since earliest childhood; years before, he had taken a bad blow to the head that had left its mark. Christian did not want to hurt Maartens, but he knew he would. Money was heavy in the air; mostly pounds, but he spotted Mort marks changing hands as well. Wigan pushed Christian forward, and he tried not to wince as men slapped and punched him in the back.

“He’s so small!” a child’s voice piped up to his left. “How can he win?”

Christian halted. Amid all the things in flux in this world, one fact held firm: he would win. It was the only thing he knew for certain, and it was enough to sustain him through the small wounds brought by each new day: Wigan’s drunks and his heavy hands; the knowledge that Maura, whom Christian thought he might love, was fucking men old enough to be her grandfather; and the blood of other boys, no older than himself, soaked into the skin of his knuckles. This certainty, the knowledge of his own abilities in the ring, was all he had.

Whirling to his left, Christian found a dark-haired child, perhaps two or three years younger than Christian himself, a thin, sickly boy with a narrow, pointed face. He was well-dressed, in thick wool and a black cloak—from topside, clearly—but it was his eyes that stayed Christian’s hand. They were bright green and hungry, and although this well-fed child couldn’t be more than eight years old, Christian sensed that the boy was fundamentally unsatisfied, constantly seeking something he did not find. Christian had never seen his own reflection, but somehow he knew just what his own eyes would look like: neither hungry nor content, but filled with a vast distance of nothing.

“Back away, Tommy, or he’ll have you too!” a man shouted over the child’s head. The man was well-dressed also, with manicured hands. . . . A rich man, Christian thought, bringing his son down to the Creche for a taste of the wild side. Losing interest, Christian turned away, but as he did so, the well-dressed man stroked a hand along his bottom. Christian stiffened, but then an iron grip descended on his shoulder.

“Do nothing!” Wigan hissed in his ear. “It’s the Prince and his handler. This is a fight you can’t win, boy. Get a move on.”

A fight he couldn’t win. Wigan might think so, but Christian had already marked the handler, engraving the man’s face on his memory. He might never see the man again, but then again, he might run into him, find him all alone in one of these dark tunnels. . . .

“Go on, boy,” Wigan growled. “Don’t go getting too big for yourself. They’re all waiting. Go on.”

Christian went, rolling his shoulders, leaving the Prince and the rest of the world behind. He was in the ring now, and in the ring there was only the opponent across from him, who would present no challenge at all. Christian could smell weakness, even well-hidden weakness, and he perceived that the huge boy-man in front of him was frightened, too frightened to make full use of his enormous biceps, hopelessly cowed by the reputation of a small, quick boy who did not lose.

“Christian! Christian!”

Turning, he saw Maura on the far side of the ring, leaning over the gates. She wore a low-cut green dress that sat absurdly on her child’s body. Mrs. Evans often let a few of her girls out on fight nights, so that they could go trawling through the