A young boy raced through the streets of a city.
A wild mop of burnt orange was barely visible as he darted in and around the foot traffic of a busy market square. The slapping of his bare feet on the cobblestones lost in the hubbub of vendors hawking their wares even as they set up their rickety stalls in the early morning light. Gulls shrieked as they circled above, swooping down to perch on statues and splash in fountains. Horses spluttered as they pulled their creaky cargoes, the occasional whiplash cracking through the air.
"Get your freshly baked bread! Two rolls for the price of one!"
The boy's stomach grumbled as he slid in between a line of thickset, heavy men who were waiting none to patiently to break their fast. Labourers, no doubt, fixing to fill their bellies before joining the morning work queues in the hope of being allocated a full days pay. The boy grimaced as he squirmed in between two particularly large men, the delicious smell of the bakery temporarily overpowered by their stale body odour. One man shifted his weight impatiently, his hip propelling the boy straight into the basin of a nearby fountain. Coughing on all fours, the boy rose to his haunches, still knee deep in the water, squinting as he rubbed his eyes and tried to part the matted hair from his face. He blinked at his reflection. Mischievous green eyes, now puffy and bleary, stared back at him. His previously burnished orange hair was now a subdued ember, dripping wet locks framing a long, pale face dotted with freckles. Overly large ears poked out from the sides of his head, thin lips pursed as spat liquid back into the basin, the ripples distorting the visage before banishing it completely.
He was brought back to the present by the laughter behind him. He turned to see a crowd of people had gathered, the men heartily chuckling and slapping their knees whilst women daintily cooed behind gloved hands. He felt his face turn the same colour as his hair as he stumbled out of the fountain and fled, the eyes of on the onlookers as tangible as the now soaking homespun clothes clinging to him. He dove under a stationary wagon and rolled, then took off again, leaving a trail of sodden footprints in his wake.
Puffing and flustered, the boy took cover in a winding alley. He scrubbed his face clear of grime, and did his best to pick off the straw and mud that clung to his back. Finally he leant back against the alley, letting out a deep breath as he dejectedly slid down to the hard cobblestones.
"Oh dear! What do we have here, gentlemen?"
The boy winced as he recognised the silky drawl, even before he saw the shiny black leather boots as they clipped unhurriedly along the cobblestones towards him. Finely crafted silver star shaped spurs spun and jingled with each approaching step. The boys eyes widened as he awkwardly rose, trying in vain to shrink back into a nook in the alleyway. Three youths, not much older than the boy himself, sauntered towards him. The tallest in the centre was clearly cut from a different cloth from the boy, silver embroidery glinting along the edges of a fine midnight-hued velvet jacket. Voluminous folds of pristine white cloth escaped in ruffles from his neck and sleeves. The other two accompanying him wore similar attire, although not as finely tailored as the ringleader's, but the boy recognised the House colours of brown and brass.
"My my, Locke and Lance, it looks like we've found a wayward lamb!"
Lance, the leaner of the two lackeys, had a thin face and squinty eyes, cackled. Locke, who was shorter and wider than the others,just grunted. A sound befitting his piggish features. Lance leered at the boy as he shoved him against the wall.
"Cliff Copper Bellows, you rusting runt!" Lance had a reedy, nasal voice to match his frame. "Don't you know these streets are Silver and Brass? There's no welcome for rust-spawned copper foundlings around here! Someil, should we teach him a learning or two?"
Someil stroked his wispy moustache sagely, nodding his head as Lance deferred to him. His dark eyes bored into Cliff.
His words were measured, slowly rolling from full lips like oil across the alley. "Perhaps there is a reason for Cliff's…geographical amnesia, hmm? He's a bright young man, mayhap he actually intended to call upon us. Is that right Cliff? Have you come to bring us something?"
Cliff squirmed against the wall, desperately looking from face to face.
"No! I mean, I just took a wrong turn is all!" His voice quavered he spoke, words tumbling one after the other. "I was in a hurry and didn't realise, honest mistake, swear to Rust! I'll be right on my way, just running errands for Corveus…I'd better not be late, he's expecting me back any moment now!"
Someil's brow furrowed as he deliberated. Cliff hoped that dropping his mentors name could distract them from anything untoward. Someil shook his head.
"No Cliff, I'm sure you did in fact come here on purpose. And to bring us a gift, no less! There are…customs that are known, even to one such as yourself. These streets were paved by House Silver, and the appropriate discourse must be followed."
Cliff blinked. His mind raced as he tried to figure his way out of this.
Someil smiled encouragingly, and held out a slender, perfectly manicured hand.
"I'll have our token of passage now, Cliff."
Cliff froze, muscles clenching like a coiled spring. He hesitated, then sprung, launching himself to the side of Lance, whose hands clawed around his wrist. Cliff was sent spinning into the opposing wall of the alley, chin first. Pain blossomed along his jaw as red sprayed the alley. He cried out and tasted blood, like burnt metal in his mouth. Lance clasped both his wrists in his birdlike hands, whilst Locke unloaded a right fist into his belly. Cliff crumpled as he gasped for breath, his legs giving out from under him as he collapsed to his knees. Tears blinked from his eyes as he blearily made out Someil crouched above him.
Someil's face blurred in front him. Cliff could feel Locke's hamfisted hands patting him down, searching.
"Someil please!" Cliff yelped. "It's for Corveus, not me! He'll know!"
Locke removed a small leather pouch from Cliff's belt and tossed it Someil.
Someil caught it in with one hand, the other removing a white and silver kercheif from his breast pocket. He dabbed at a small speck of blood dotted on the white folds of his sleeves, unperturbed.
"Thank you for being so accomodating, young Cliff. A gift is a gift, and we cannot refuse it! Well, if we must, let's have a look at what you have bestowed upon us so graciously."
He upended the pouch into one hand, a small clinking as a number of cogs and gears of various metals came out. His handsome face twisted.
"Gears and cheap metal? This is not a bountiful tithe, Cliff. The respect of the giver is shown in the gift...and this is sadly lacking. What must you think of House Silver?"
The wrought metals fell to the ground, and the silver buckled boots smashed down, again and again, until it resembled an incomprehensible jumble of scrap. He motioned to Locke, shaking his head. Cliff writhed in Lance's hold, but to no avail. Lockes hands were unrelenting as he grasped Cliffs head in an iron grip.
"No, no! Please! Som-"
Cliff's face met the alley wall with a sickening crack, and everything went blissfully black.
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