An hour later, Bleeding Wolf stumbled on the tradesmen’s street, equal parts chagrined and impressed. He had fallen into the trap of thinking the captain a generous man. Instead, it seemed he was a clever one, though Bleeding Wolf had to give him credit: He really was cleverer than most.
It was no matter, though. Lack of care had landed him with worse consequences. This would simply need to be a reminder. He pulled his vest back over his shoulders and gave his surroundings a glance. The street was longer than he remembered–the last few years had evidently treated the Crossroads well–but the surge in the town’s fortunes had cost him his bearings. It was another fifteen minutes of sullen wandering before he finally came upon his destination.
The greeting came from under the awning of a smithy, uttered by the old proprietor, looking bemusedly up from his workbench.
“Gene, you look older than ever!” Bleeding Wolf replied with a smirk. He ducked through the doorway, out of the sun.
“And you still look like a damn kid.”
“The mana yet flows.”
“That’s dangerous talk these days, what with our clientele, and the Shell knows I ain’t riskin’ the bloodsick for an ugly babyface like yours.”
“The warning is…appreciated, though,” Bleeding Wolf replied, leaning against the counter. “Are they actually coming into town now?” Gene scoffed.
“Big bads ‘emselves? I sure hope not. Marko don’t meet with ‘em here anyhow. But they got ears to the ground, and words are loud hereabouts.” Bleeding Wolf glanced out the door at the empty alley across the way. For a moment, a strange scent tinged the air. Sugar. Uncomfortable sweetness. Then it was gone. He turned back to Gene.
“Who’s shopping these days?”
“Sculptor, per usual,” Gene said, polishing the knife blade he was working when Bleeding Wolf came in. “Stays in Holme, of course, but you see whitefrocks here every day. ‘Yond that, Marko’s got a mystery buyer who’s ‘parently throwin’ cash around wild-like, and then you got the less savory ones hangin’ on the periphery.”
“Ya know,” Gene adjusted his spectacles, “the Blaze has his…uh…people around, and I heard a rumor that Old Ouroboros himself put out a buy order a few weeks back.” Bleeding Wolf let out a low growl at nothing in particular.
“Good to see you’re still on the gossip,” he said, sincere in spite of his choice of words. “Tell me Marko didn’t sell.”
“Woulda killed ‘im m’self if he did,” Gene replied, glancing back down at his bench. “Not sure the rest of the Crossroads woulda understood, though. Town’s changed, Dog Boy. ‘Tween the bloodsick and the newcomers from the scav trade, most folks round here don’t remember the war. Maybe they know it’s what took their gramps, but they never saw those roaches or the…stitched things the Dragon had in ‘is basement.”
“Probably for the best.” Gene spat.
“If the bastard were gone, maybe! But he ain’t! He’s still here, the old timers are all gone ‘cept me, and the damn fools holdin’ Marko’s leash don’t know what they’re dealin’ with.”
“The Bergen boy?” Bleeding Wolf ventured. There was a long pause, then Gene sighed.
“I’ll hold my tongue,” he said. Another pause, shorter, then: “What have you been doin’ these last five years?”
“Odd jobs around the Bloodwood. Then I took a trip down south. Just…trying to understand.”
“What’s there to understand?”
“Well, what’s left, for one. Seems like after the war the Riverlands were ready to bloom again. Then a few decades go by, the scav trade gets big, and the Crossroads and Holme and the Reach, they all do well for themselves. But I realized I’d stopped hearing about everywhere in between.”
“And?” Bleeding Wolf shook his head.
“There isn’t much there anymore. Lots of stops I remember on the riverfront between here and the Reach. Just damp and scrapwood now. Some signs of violence, though I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after everyone left. It’s like everywhere but here is just dying, Gene.”
“Certainly a shame,” Gene said, setting aside his knife. “Something we oughtta be worried about, y’reckon?”
“We should definitely be worried,” Bleeding Wolf replied. “Though fuck me if I can say what of.”
“Well I ain’t gonna fuck you, so I guess I’ll just wait’n’see.” Bleeding Wolf cracked a smile at the retort, but he found himself distracted again by the sudden, intrusive taste of sugar at the back of his mouth. Instinctively, he glanced back at the alleyway to see a boy, perhaps fourteen, slumped there against the wall. Strange. How long had he been there?
“I’m worried about those two,” Gene said, following his gaze.
“Boy and his sister. Came in with a caravan a few weeks back, but I think they was just hitchin’ a ride.”
“They begging?” Bleeding Wolf asked. “I didn’t think the merchants were a charitable lot.”
“He’s sick an’ ain’t doin’ much of anything I can see. Pretty sure she’s stealin’ from market stalls. Peacekeeper’ll get wise soon, but I pity ‘em all the same. Ain’t their fault the world gone cutthroat.”
“It ain’t.” For a moment, they sat in silence, contemplating the boy’s dead-eyed expression. Then Gene spoke up again:
“How long’ll ya be in town this time?”
“Not sure,” Bleeding Wolf replied. “A day or two, maybe. Think I’ll see if Marko has any work. If I’m gonna be worrying about abandoned villages and unseen threats, I might as well check with him anyway.”
“He certainly knows all ‘bout threats,” Gene agreed bitterly.