“She looked like a giant goon-bird!” said Marcus. His voice was unmistakable, and his laugh noticeably infectious. Nearly everybody in the room was laughing. Only Drew’s gang, sitting on the table next to Marcus and Tim’s other friends refused to laugh. This despite the fact that Rob was now strutting between the tables doing a perfect imitation of the odd walk of the goon-bird, and, from Marcus’s increased laughter, the lady he had obviously seen earlier in the day.
Smiles were beginning to appear on the faces of Cokle and Tymere, Drew’s closest allies. It only took a glance from Drew for the smiles to disappear and the two to try and look serious. The trio were an odd bunch. Not really bullies, just unpleasant and far too serious for boys that were barely six months older than Movo and his friends. They all had ideas above their station, coming from families that owned factories and shops in the city, but they were all a long way from the nobility that they tried to imitate.
Laughing at the appearance of people who could potentially be their employers was to them obviously not the way to behave.
“Movo!!”, shouted Weston, as he slapped the bench, indicating to Movo that he should join them.
“Hello everybody. Are we still going to the Chasm tonight?” said Movo, sitting next to Weston and the others.
“Yes.”, laughed Marcus, holding his sides from the laughing.
“Good. I need to eat first. I had to go from Wimbole’s factory to Silverkin and back again this afternoon. I barely made it.” Movo picked up some bread from the bowl in the middle of the table, and then ladled some stew from a pot next to the bread into a large, wide, bowl. The meat and dumplings smelled delicious.
As he started tucking into the food, Marcus started relaying his day to the rest of the group. “I had six trips between that lawyer and Mr. Tincaid. I don’t know what they are discussing, but it requires a lot of paperwork. I had to use a satchel for some of the bundles today.”
“I saw the palace guard today marching through the streets. I couldn’t stop to see where they were going, but there was a big crowd nearby.” said George, picking at what remained of his bread.
“I heard about that from Mr. Tiki.”, said Rob, suddenly losing the laughter from his voice. “He said that some kid from one of the rich families has disappeared, and this time they had broken the glass to get into the room where his tutor teaching him. I think the guard were called to see if they could help find them.”
“Mr. Wimbole said he has lost three children this week.”, said Movo. “Where are they all going?”
“I don’t know. Why children? Mr. Tiki said this kid was 14, and due to apprentice soon at a local bank.”
“He’s hardly a child, then, unless you all think of yourself as still kids?” said Weston. Always the more serious of the group, Weston had stopped acting like a kid a full two years before the rest. Movo was sure this was because Weston had lost his parents not long after first joining the runners. They had been part of a wagon trail heading out to Akteem, the next city before you reached the coast, when a band of raiders had attacked the wagons and killed most of the occupants. Only a few people made it back to the city to raise the alarm, but on foot it took days and the palace guard could find no trace of them by the time they returned.
The change in Weston had been instant. Instead of giving up and wallowing in his parent’s death, he had doubled his efforts to be a good runner. Occasionally one of the gang would find him crying in their dormitory, but once noticed he would quickly stand up with a serious look on his face before leaving the room, not even wiping his tears away.
Marcus replied to Weston’s question, “Well no, but he hadn’t apprenticed yet. It’s not as if he had any skills, and he’s not old enough or strong enough to be press-ganged for a sailor or to join the guards. In any case, we are miles from the sea here.”
“Are they sure he was abducted?” asked George.
“Why would the glass have been smashed on the doors?” said Movo.
Weston was the first to ask a more obvious question, “And where was the tutor?”
Marcus said “Apparently talking to the parents in a different part of the house. But the doors to the room open on to one of the alleyways. You know what those houses are like, it would have only taken seconds to knock out the window and grab him.”
They all nodded in agreement. As frequent travellers down the various alleyways in the city, they all knew the type of house Marcus was talking about. Whatever the reason for the disappearances, most of the children that had gone missing had been the same age as the group. With Movo as the oldest at thirteen, although only by a few months, the boys seemed like a likely target. And unlike the boy in the house, they were out on the streets all day and would be more easily missed than a captive son or daughter.
As Movo was mopping the gravy in the bottom of the dish, Marcus stood up and asked if they were all coming to the Chasm. Various shouts and grunts indicated that they would. Tim picked up his dish and walked over to a table where a bowl of water and brush were located. Quickly rinsing the bowl out, he placed the upturned bowl on a rack to dry, and then turned to follow the rest of the gang on their evening out.
“Movoloy!”, the voice trailed off slightly at the end. It was Drew.
“What do you want?” asked Movo. He hated people using his full name. Not even his mother called him Movoloy any more.
“I heard you were at the Silverkin place today”, purred Drew.
“Yes, and what business is that of yours?” retorted Movo.
“Nothing, it just should have been me that made that delivery. It’s my father who does business with Mr. Silverkin, you know.”
“That doesn’t mean that you should do the deliveries. You know the rules, the senders choose who take the messages, not the runners.” said Movo.
“Yes, well, sometimes the clients”, Drew made a point of emphasizing the word, “should see a priest for their ignorance.” Movo thought this last statement was odd. The priests weren’t exactly known for their commercial expertise.
“You should take more care over the messages you do have to deal with, Master Drew, before you criticize the work of others.” Amos, the man in charge of the messengers, stood behind Drew and put a gentle, but firm, hand on his shoulder.
Drew had turned a mild shade of red. “I didn’t mean to suggest…”
“You did, and I heard you. Perhaps a few days of kitchen service would help remind you about the importance of your running.” Kitchen service was horrid. Although you were still only sending messages between different parts of the city, you were running orders between the various inns and big houses in the city to the merchants and butchers. The actual running was no different to any other job, it was the smell that was unpleasant. You would go from a kitchen where the food would make you salivate, to areas like the butchers’ quarter, rank with the smell of animal offal and rotting meat. The contrast of smells would be enough to make most peoples stomachs churn.
The same thoughts were running through Drew’s head. The shade of red he had turned earlier had been turned to a mild shade of green. He started to protest. “Perhaps a week would be better.” said Amos.
Drew was now silent, but the smirks on Cokle and Tymere’s faces from his predicament were wiped off when Amos added them to the list too.
With a smile on his face, Movo nodded to Amos and turned to leave, but was called back before he had taken a step.
From behind Amos, Movo noticed a girl, probably ten or eleven years of age. She had short blonde hair and blue eyes and she smiled warmly at Movo. “I’d like you to take Tambil here and teach her the job of a runner. She’ll be working with you until I decide otherwise. Tambil, meet Movo. You are to do anything he says. He’s one of our best runners and he should show you the ropes. Movo, take good care of Tambil, I would hate to explain to her mother if any trouble should befall her.”
Amos gently pushed Tambil’s shoulders towards Movo.
“Hello,” said Movo, “pleased to meet you.”
“You too”, said Tambil. There was a slight accent to her voice that Movo couldn’t quite recognize, but it was obvious that she wasn’t a local. Maybe she was from one of the realms to the north of the city. There were a number of smaller islands miles beyond the desert that existed to the north.
“Would you like to come to the Chasm?” asked Movo, as he turned towards the door again. He hoped his friends would still be waiting outside the front door for him.
“What’s the Chasm?”, asked Tambil, skipping a little to keep up with Movo.
“Are you new here?”. Movo was sure that nearly all the children in the city knew the Chasm, even if they didn’t get to visit it every week.
“No. My mother is from Gildaren. We only arrived a few weeks ago. I haven’t been out of the house much since we arrived.”
They left the kitchen and headed through the office to the front door. The four boys were laughing and giggling again as Rob was once again doing a variety of imitations of the people walking past in the evening light.
George was the first to notice Movo and Tambil as they entered from the hallway. He nudged Weston, who in turn poked Marcus and then Rob was caught by his sleeve while doing an odd shuffle on his tiptoes. All four smiled at Tambil and then started to blush when Tambil smiled back at them.
“Are we going or not?” said Movo.
“Err, sure. Yes. Follow me.” said Weston, switching back into his familiar mature mode.
As they walked across the square and up the hill, Movo asked Tambil, “So, what made your parents come here?”
“It’s not my parents, just my mother. I don’t know where my father is.”
“It’s OK, my mother said he went missing many years ago, but she’s never told me how.”
Movo tried to return to the original questions, “So why Khapur?”
“My mother is a translator, she’s here on a special job to help the king.”
“You’ve met the king?” said Movo.
“Not yet. I’ve heard his really handsome though.” said Tambil, blushing herself.
“I wouldn’t know.” said Movo. He’d never seen the king either, but even if he had, he wouldn’t have been thinking about his appearance.
They continued on in silence for a while until they reached the top of the hill and a large square. You could just see a cliff on the other side of the square. Rushing over to the edge, Tambil looked over the side and down the side of a massive cliff. Khapur had been built on a steep hill which had an almost perfectly flat top, but was surrounded by cliffs on all sides where the hill was a reasonable height above the surrounding plain.
Across from the top of the hill another mountain started, tall enough and steep enough that it could not be reached easily or built upon, it remained as a large stop signalling the end of the city.
Houses and buildings went right up to the edge of the mountain on all sides, except for this square, which sat on the edge of the mountain and provided an amazing view of the crag that existed between the edge of Khapur and Khai-tain mountain. It was easy to see how the name Chasm had come about.
A full 200ft across, and close to 2000ft deep, the chasm was walled by deep red and smooth stone on both sides. Tambil doubted that the cliff face could be scaled without the use of ropes, and even then you would be unable to find any handholds on the way up or down.
Tambil looked at Movo with sheer wonderment in her eyes. Then he pointed behind her to her left, and she looked out over the plains. You could see for miles. In between Khapur and the far horizon were occasional farms and fields full of sheep and cattle, but mostly the fields were bare dirt and the occasional river meandering its way through the plain.
The red sun glinted off of the some of the rivers, high though it was now in the sky, it would soon start to sink again and the true night would begin. Until then, the red sun bathed the Chasm and the plaza in warm, red, light.
Marcus and the rest of the boys had already left to visit one of the many stalls dotted about the plaza. They were selling a variety of foods, or offering games and distractions to the many people walking around the square. The Chasm was a popular place for all ages and races to visit for their evening entertainment.
“Would you like something to eat?” said Movo.
“Do you like wraps?”
“Vegetable please, extra spicy.”
Widespread throughout most of the country, the wraps came from the south. With meat or vegetables, combined with a hot sauce, the filling was surrounded in a large savory pancake. Movo ordered a vegetable wrap for Tambil, and then a beef one for himself, before handing over some change from his pouch. Tambil offered Movo some coins of her own, but he waved them away. “You can buy next time. We’ll be spending a lot of time together while I show you round. I’m sure the opportunity will come up.”
She smiled with a shy smile on her face and put the coins back in a purse that she placed back into a pocket. She was wearing a long red dress in light cotton, and looked decidedly out of place among the browns, whites and blacks that most of the boys were wearing.
“Do you have any trousers or a t-shirt?” asked Movo.
“Yes, of course.”
“Good, you’ll need something that allows you to run, and it needs to look smart, even after you’ve been rushing about. You can make good tips by looking a bit professional.”
Tambil was nodding as she bit into her wrap. “I’m sure I can find something. If not, I’ll have to buy it from somewhere.”
Movo raised his eyebrows. Clothing was not cheap in Khapur. Although a lot of clothing was made in the city, the cloth used to make it had to come from miles away in the east. That made the cloth expensive. You could buy woollen clothing, but in the heart of summer as they were at the moment, the last thing you wanted was woollen trousers or tops. Buying clothing was not something you did on a whim in Khapur.
The remainder of the evening was spent feasting on different foods and treats and then playing the games at different stalls. Tambil turned out to be surprisingly good at hoopla. Nobody won anything that evening, and the walk back to the runner’s building was more subdued than usual.