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Chapter 1: The Cursewright and the Boy, Part 2

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 It occurred to the boy that he had never before addressed the cursewright by name. He had no idea what to call him. At last he settled on the sort of honorific he used even for the shabbiest of the Lioness's customers. "Lord Mourthia? Lena wanted to know if, if you were ready." He hated the stammer in his voice, and tried to cover it by hurrying to the well, pumping it furiously, wishing it had already been primed. The air was unusually still, and the squeak of the pump was tremendous.

"Lord? Gods, no. Ammas will do. I've no title, lad, nor am I likely to see one in my lifetime." He smiled and closed the book with a snap, concealing it somewhere in his voluminous cloak.

The boy frowned at him over one shoulder. Ammas had told him the little book was called a breviary, and that it was full of prayers. But the cursewright was no priest, whether he conducted business in a temple or not. As the boy watched Ammas rose and approached the well, dusting off his hat, the charms making soft musical noises. With his hat off the cursewright's hair proved to be chestnut, curled, and mottled with gray here and there. His normally shadowed face seemed much friendlier. 

"Let me take that." He took the bucket from the boy and began pumping the well himself, sweat appearing on his forehead as he did so. After a moment water began to spit from the well, erratic at first, then in a slow chuckle. "Cass. I've never asked. What is it short for?" The water flowed steadily now, the bucket a quarter full. Stripped of the concealing brim of his hat, Ammas's eyes were warmer and livelier than the boy could ever remember. They were blue, a lighter shade than the boy's own so they appeared gray in some light, and less exotic in Ammas's pale face than the boy's were against his darker skin.

"Casimir, sir."

"Casimir! A noble name. You don't mind if I call you that rather than Cass, do you? It's a name of kings, and of angels."

The boy smiled shyly. "No, sir. Casimir is fine."

"Well, Casimir, no need to run back to Lena with the water. I'll come with you. I'm just about ready. This should be the end of it." Ammas gave a great sigh and straightened, apparently judging the bucket to be full enough. "If you wouldn't mind carrying the water, though. I have a bit more preparation before we go."

"No, sir, I don't mind." The boy's fear was lessening inch by inch, and he began to wonder if the cursewright's manner of dress was as much a costume as it was anything. Ammas nodded and sat down again, drawing from his cloak a battered tin. Opening it revealed a black substance like boot polish, its odor reminiscent of fresh blackberries. At last the question that had been lurking in the boy's mind for days burst forth, safely away from Lena's ears. "Why did it happen, Ammas? Why Lena's father? Is he a bad man? Did he do it to himself?"

Ammas smiled sadly. Loosely he covered the tin, muting the blackberry scent, and laid a hand on Casimir's shoulder. "It's a mystery with no answer, Casimir. I can tell you this. Munazyr is an old, old city. Old, and violent. Kingdoms have fought over it, empires have broken in trying to take it, and even without the threat of war, terrible things have happened here. The Yellow Death killed tens of thousands, and that was only thirty years past." Suddenly Ammas fixed the boy with a steely eye. "You never go into the sewers, do you, lad? There are remnants of the plague down there. They should be avoided at all costs."

Wide-eyed, Casimir shook his head. He had heard stories about the sewers. Youngsters in even less fortunate circumstances than his often hid down there, avoiding the city guard and the odd press gang. Not all of them came back. There were many tales of monsters lurking in the deepest tunnels, and he knew for a fact that only last summer the Wainwright's Guild had broken into a stinking charnel pit still full of plague victims while expanding their guildhall. The Deputy Guildmaster had told the story at the Lioness one chilly night around Yearsend. But Casimir had never dared to go into the sewers himself.

"That's a good lad. Keep it in mind. When a lot of bad things happen over many years in a place like this, spirits can't help but be attracted to it. And some spirits are cruel, malicious -- and all are hungry. A frail old man like Lena's father, with so much regret in his heart, over his own life, over what's become of his daughter -- it would seem a feast to some spirits. And so one latched on to him."

Casimir didn't understand everything Ammas had said about Orson's regret. He knew the old man had once helped build the ships down in the Brightmoon Bay yards, but had been left crippled after a mast collapsed on him. It had been not long after the accident that Lena had come to work at the Lioness. But Casimir nodded anyway, not wanting to seem stupid.

"But," Ammas held up an admonitory finger, a rueful smile on his lips, "none of that means it was Orson's fault. No more than it's your fault when you catch a cold, or mine when my cloak snags on a doorframe and rips. There are many things waiting to prey on us, Casimir, and all we can do is prepare for them and help our friends when they need it."

Casimir wasn't sure Ammas really considered the old man a friend -- certainly he hadn't heard the cursewright was performing this service free of charge -- but he had heard the girls in the Lioness speak in even friendlier terms of their clients, so it seemed a harmless enough lie.

"Now," Ammas was saying, uncapping the little tin again, "grab hold of that bucket. It's time to put an end to this." As Casimir watched, the cursewright daubed two fingers into the black, sweet-smelling paste and smeared a healthy dollop of it beneath each of his eyes. The effect should have been comical -- give him a resemblance to a thieving raccoon -- but the boy found it far from amusing. The gleaming black circles under Ammas's eyes made him look gaunt and cadaverous, as intimidating as he ever seemed when under the shadow of his hat. But Casimir was no longer quite so frightened of the cursewright, and he asked the obvious question without much hesitance.

"What's that stuff for?"

"It lets me see things."

The boy absorbed this. "What things?"

Ammas peered closely at him, something unnerving in the set of his mouth. "Things you don't need to concern yourself with. Not now. If you'd be so kind, lead me back to the house. It'll take a few minutes for this stuff to set. I'd rather spend those minutes looking at the ground."

Frowning at this but not questioning it, Casimir hoisted the bucket in one hand and let the cursewright lean lightly on his other shoulder, the two of them moving back down Hawser Street at an almost leisurely pace. Down in his belly Casimir felt a gnawing fear -- shouldn't they hurry?-- but Ammas didn't seem too concerned, and so he followed the cursewright's lead. Ammas's hand was neat and small for a man's, rough enough for the calluses to be felt through the boy's thin shirt, but it was gentle, too. "Talk to me, Casimir. About anything. Street gangs you run with, which girls at the Lioness you like best, what Barthim does when he's off-duty. Just fill the silence, if you please." There was a quaver in Ammas's voice Casimir found puzzling.

After a moment, the boy realized the cursewright was afraid. How that was possible he couldn't fathom. Ammas Mourthia was an object of fear, not the victim of it.

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