The Night Wanderers

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Peter Prendergast

Toby handed over the translated scriptures to his professor before taking a seat on the top tier of the amphitheatre, where he had a good view of the rest of the students. He liked being able to observe without being observed. He had a small desk to take notes on and laid out his notepaper and a few pens in preparation for the lecture, but as soon as he sat back up, his attention was stolen by Elsa.

She entered with two friends. Of the three, she was the only one to hand in some translations. She looked up suddenly and met his eye, and it was at this moment that he realised he had been sitting with his chin on his hand, his jaw slack, practically drooling. He looked away hurriedly and busied himself with his papers, even though they did not need organising. All of them were blank, waiting for the day’s notes: Latin for the first hour, short-hand for the second, and then two hours on mathematics and nuclear physics. He firmly told himself not to look at her once during the four hours of tuition.

“Can I sit with you?”

Toby’s self-discipline was short-lived as Elsa approached him. She had a satchel at her hip and held a large notepad in one arm. A pen was stuck behind her ear, lifting her brown hair out of her face. He nodded with a smile he hoped looked friendly. She smiled warmly back at him.

“I tend to get distracted when I sit with my friends, and I know you’re always working really hard up here, so I know you won’t distract me,” she explained. “Maybe you can even help me.”

He doubted he would be able to concentrate enough to help her with anything, but all he said was, “Sure, if you need it.”

Elsa sat beside him and organised her desk accordingly. Toby watched her out of the corner of his eye until the professor stepped up to the podium. He sat up straight and poised his pen over his paper.

“Translate these phrases without the use of notes, please,” the professor commanded. “They are common labels for old or secret documents.” He then started writing on the huge blackboard behind him, chalking Latin words with harsh lines. Toby copied them down one by one and translated them. Many of the words were synonyms for more common or obvious ones, such as the phrase replacing maximum with summo, but Toby was fairly good at spotting them. Elsa, on the other hand, struggled. She had many words translated, but very few full phrases. The end of her pen tapped irritably on her desk as she thought, a crease of concentration between her brows.

Toby spent several minutes contemplating whether or not to help her, afraid that if he helped she would wave away the help the way proud girls sometimes did, afraid that if he did not help she would consider him rude, or worse, smug. He decided the former was less of a risk and leant forward so he could speak to her.

“Is everything all right?” he asked in a low voice.

She nodded, and then sighed. “No. I don’t know these words. I assume they’re adjectives.”

“Yes,” Toby said encouragingly. “I’m sure you know them. They’re all synonyms for more obvious words, like secretum. Secret documents tend to use these words to deter inspection. If they were just old, the words would be standard.”

Elsa seemed to think about this information for a moment. “So this is a good indication of when the document was written.”

“It’s one way of predicting, I guess,” Toby admitted. “But I imagine the theory is flawed. Latin is a colourful language with many words, more words than in the English language. Some ancient documents will be written using these synonyms. Including direct copies of the transcripts, so we can’t judge by the state of the paper,” he added as she opened her mouth to argue.

She frowned at him. “How do you know so much?”

“I have no social life,” he answered with a slight smile, but it was the truth. He was always studying, working, or sleeping. Apart from the occasional late-night visit from Jake, he spent little time with the people he called friends. “I spend the free time I have translating the scriptures we’re given.”

“It sounds awfully lonely,” Elsa answered lightly, her attention back on her paper.

“Sometimes,” Toby admitted. “I tend to be too busy to be lonely.”

She did not look at him, but he caught her small smile as she scribbled words underneath the Latin phrases.

Later, between making cups of coffee and acting over-friendly to suburban customers, Toby worked discreetly on the new scripture he had been given. It was not only written in a mixture of Latin and short-hand, but also encrypted. He ducked beneath the counter during a quiet moment to translate some words he recognised, but he had only managed three when someone coughed on the other side.

He peeked up and felt his stomach flip. Elsa grinned down at him, leaning on the counter, her own copy of the scripture in hand. Toby stood up quickly and brushed his hair flat. “Hi.”

“Hey,” she answered, still grinning. “Were you working on the scripture?”

He nodded sheepishly. “It’s the only time I have. I work until the sun starts to go down, and then I have to run home if I want any chance of a good night’s sleep.”

She frowned at him. “Where do you live?”

“The Tower District.”

“I thought you came from the Suburban District,” she answered. “Most of the students do.”

“I did. I was brought up and educated here, but I moved to my own place as soon as I got my place at the school.” In answer to her questioning look, he added, “It is impossible to study with my brother around.”

She grimaced sympathetically, but quickly changed the subject. “If you were working on the scripture, I hope you’ve had more luck than me.” She held out her own translation sheet. “I’ve translated all the words, but it still doesn’t make sense. Have I done something wrong?”

Toby tried to hide a smile as a warm glow ignited in his chest. She had sought him out for help. He looked over at the sheet and saw that every word had been translated correctly, but she had not spotted the encryption. “The document has been encrypted,” he told her. “I would guess that it was written in English first, encrypted, and then translated. Top secret documents are hidden this way.”

Elsa stared at her paper for a few moments, concentrating on the words while Toby accepted coins from a customer and handed them a glass of lime water. When they were gone, Toby asked Elsa, “Is my advice all you came in for?” He realised he was nearing cockiness, but he kept his voice light and conversational.

She smirked up at him. “As valuable as your wisdom is, I’m here to meet someone.”

The glow seemed to fade slightly. “I see. Can I get you a drink while you wait for them?”

Elsa nodded. “Okay, then. I wouldn’t mind a hot chocolate.”

Toby set about making the most perfectly accurate cup of hot chocolate he could manage. He even made the shape of a leaf with the cream. She was busy scribbling when he placed it on the counter next to her, but she paused long enough to admire his handiwork. She smiled widely, and Toby hoped it meant she was impressed.

“Do you show off to all your clients?” she asked playfully.

“Only the ones that call me wise.”

She laughed quietly. “What do I owe you for it?”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.” She started to protest, but he continued, “I’m allowed a free drink every hour to keep me on my toes. I’m owed one from last hour, so you can have it.”

“Thank you.” She sounded genuinely grateful. It had not been a complete lie; he was owed a drink every hour. This just meant he would have to go through the next without one.

“Are you flirting with my date?”

Toby’s stomach dropped as Jake approached, his smile broad, and draped his arm over Elsa’s shoulders. He hoped his face did not portray the horror he felt at that moment. “Here, I’ll get that for you.” He reached for his wallet in order to pay for Elsa’s drink, but Toby, who had suddenly busied himself with his scripture, stopped him.

“She’s paid already.”

Elsa snuck a puzzled glance up at him, but Toby would not look at her. Jake did not question it and put his wallet away. He looked briefly at the leaf pattern in the brown liquid and said, “You never make that much effort with my drinks.”

“You wouldn’t appreciate it.” His tone was stony even to his own ears, but he could not find the will to even appear friendly. Jake did not seem to notice, or care.

“Is this Latin?” he asked Elsa. He attended the school also, but he belonged to the Guard’s college. His days were spent studying self-defence and the history of weapons. He had no need to learn Latin or the different decryption techniques.

“Partially,” she answered. “It’s also shorthand.”

“Such a colourful language, Latin,” Jake continued, as though she had not spoken. Toby could think of many colourful words to describe Jake at that moment, and none of them Latin. He felt somewhat betrayed by Jake, even though he had never expressed his feelings for Elsa openly. Jake had no way of knowing how he felt, but nevertheless. He scribbled violently on his paper and hoped the other two could not hear the anguish in the sound. He considered asking the pair of them to move away, so he would not have to watch them. Jake kept touching her. Stop it.

Night Wanderer!

Everyone in the small café looked up at the shout, flinching by the volume. Standing in the middle of the room was a young man that Toby recognised by face if not by name. He had just left the Academy. He glared down at another boy Toby had never seen before, who gazed back up blankly, astonished by the accusation.

“What are you-?” The boy started to defend himself, but the ex-Academy student launched himself at him, sending the boy and his chair to the floor. Toby acted instinctively to prevent any further damage to the property. His employer would fire him if anything happened under his supervision.

“What’s the problem?” Toby asked, positioning himself between the two young men that could not be far apart in age.

“He’s a Night Wanderer!” the student shouted again, pointing a threatening finger at the boy on the floor. Toby remembered his name now: Simon. Simon Blakewell.

“How on Earth can you know that?” Toby asked reasonably.

“Do you know how they disguise themselves?” Simon asked, now directing his wrath at Toby. “They have blue war-paint on their faces. He has blue stains around his eyes. That’s how I know.”

“Only a Dark Keeper would know that,” Toby pointed out darkly. “The rest of us are too busy hiding from the dark to know anything about them.” Simon seemed to suddenly realise what he had done. Everyone in the café glowered at him. Toby continued before he could talk himself out of it. “The girl that died last night, we all heard her screams. Did you know her? Were you the one to kill her?”

“He’s a rebel,” Simon replied, trying to avoid the accusations. “He is the reason the helicopter went down last night. He is the reason-”

“Two of your kin didn’t die because of the rebels. They died because they were killing innocent citizens. Any deaths the Guard experience, they bring it on themselves. I don’t know who this guy is, but if he is a rebel, then you can bet that almost everyone in this building will back him against you.”

“He’s a rebel. He’s bringing unbalance and danger to the city-”

“And you’re a murderer.” Toby pointed to the door. “Get out. I don’t serve killers of innocents.”

Simon did not move for a moment and looked as though he wanted to argue. He glanced around and realised that Toby was right; everyone in the room was willing to back the boy accused of being a Night Wanderer. He whirled on his heel and stormed out, knocking over a chair on the way.

The café was in complete silence, everyone staring at Toby. He turned to the boy still on the floor and offered a hand to help him up. He accepted. Up close, Toby realised that he was only a little older than himself and, as Simon had claimed, he could see the faint outlines of blue war-paint patterning the skin around his eyes. Oddly, there were none below his nose.

“Thank you, friend,” the boy said. “I’ll remember this. What’s your name?”

“Toby,” he answered.

“Toby,” the boy repeated, as though committing it to memory. “I’m Oliver.” He left soon after that.

“That was really brave,” Elsa said as Toby returned to his place behind the counter and the buzz of chatter slowly started up again. He shrugged casually and hoped his cheeks were not as red as they felt.

It was hard to imagine that the alleys had once been hard to navigate when Toby had first ventured out at night. Even if his eyes could not quite adjust enough to see every corner and wall, he had learnt to sense pathways using something like echo location. The area around the base he knew well enough to not even need that; he could made his way from the base to the edge of the Suburban District with his eyes closed. From there, however, he had to move slower to navigate correctly.

Oliver walked at his side as he limped through the alley connecting the Tower and Suburban Districts. The pain in his lower leg had faded over the course of the day, most of which he had spent sleeping, but the muscle was still too weak for him to walk properly. He and his partner were dressed in identical black clothes, covered with long, grey coats. They had matching black scarves covering the lower halves of their faces. The only thing separating them was the few inches difference in height, and the unique pattern of war-paint disguising their eyes.

“Can you see her?” Toby asked, his voice low and muffled by the scarf.

Oliver’s eyes slid to the rooftops alongside them, looking out for the agile figure jumping expertly from the high roofs of the towers to the lower townhouses. Lucy was the most skilled free-runner of the Watch, jumping incredible heights, barely making a noise. Toby and Oliver paused where the towers ended and waited for her signal as she scouted ahead.

Waving her bow meant the path was empty; holding it stationary meant there were guards close by. After a moment, her bow waved once. The boys continued, moving slowly through the more closely guarded Suburban District; there were not many alleys here and the buildings were not nearly as high as the towers or the shadows as dense.

Lucy led them slowly through the district, scouting in search of both guards and Peter Prendergast’s house. She, too, wore the same black clothes and grey coat that were designed to be androgynous, but her movements were undoubtedly feminine. She and Toby had not spoken since that morning in the bathroom, but they knew better than to let personal issues get in the way of work. He trusted her to lead them safely, and she trusted him to get the job done.

Her bow went up suddenly, held perfectly still and the boys stopped dead in their tracks, retreating back into the shadow. Lucy crouched low against the roof, out of their sight.

“Has she found the house?” Oliver asked in no more than a murmur.

“No. She wouldn’t be hiding if she had,” Toby pointed out. They waited well over a minute for Lucy’s silhouette to reappear. She waved her bow twice, and Toby knew that it meant hurry. And hurry he did, as far as his weakened leg would allow him. He could hear the distant footsteps of guards now as they ventured further into the district, and their progress slowed considerably.

To avoid the guards, Lucy had to lead them in a large loop that made their journey twice as long as it should have been. The wound on Toby’s leg began to ache and his limp became more prominent, slowing them further. Oliver’s eyes expressed concern, but he remained silent. They had all experienced similar wounds and worse, and knew that there was nothing to be done but grin and bear it. Lucy finally perched on the roof of one, particularly large house close to the border to the Governor’s District. There she stayed until the boys caught up to her. Without saying a word, she used her bow to point to one of the windows on the upper floor, although Toby was not exactly sure how she had worked out which was the correct one in such a short space of time. It was not the first time, either, that he had wondered if she was a clairvoyant.

While Lucy surveyed the surrounding streets, Toby kept his eye on the windows of the house, waiting for a light to come on or some other sign of life. Oliver began to scale the side of the house. The townhouses had less notches and handholds, which made climbing them slightly more difficult, but it was much harder to hurt oneself after a fall.

The window opened silently under Oliver’s hands. None of the windows in the city had locks – who would be around to thieve when the night was forbidden? – and Oliver pulled himself up to perch on the sill. He stared into the room for a moment before gesturing for Toby to follow.

Toby left Lucy to keep a lookout on the roof. She could alert them if guards were closing in, or shoot them if need be. His climb was slower than Oliver’s, because he could not put much weight on his injured leg. The room inside was dark, but clearly elaborate. The four-poster bed was large enough to sleep four people, but only one portly man lay beneath the beautifully embroidered quilt. He snored quietly, and Toby thought it odd that he slept separately from his wife. He sat perched on the too-large chest of drawers, a large, curve-bladed knife in his hands while Oliver paced towards the sleeping figure, standing on the other side of the bed, between Prendergast and the door. He gently shook him awake. The action almost made Toby laugh; he would happily kill the oppressor, but he was gentle with them first.

“Good evening, Peter,” Oliver greeted as the man jerked awake. “Please don’t shout.”

Even though his hands were empty, Prendergast had a clear view of the array of weapons in Oliver’s belt, the blades glinting in the dim moonlight. They were more for show than anything; Oliver’s weapon of choice was the dagger, but he still carried a rapier and a machete, as well as an assortment of throwing knives.

“Night Wanderers?” Prendergast’s voice was hoarse and weary. “What do you want with me?”

“We would like to have a word with you,” Oliver said quietly.

“I’m not anything to do with the government,” Prendergast continued, panic-stricken. “Your problem is with them, not me. I’m on your side, I agree that the outer districts should be taken care of, the poverty out there is terrible-”

“I’m sure you do,” Oliver said, pulling out his dagger. “Please don’t raise your voice, because if you alert anyone to our presence, I will have to kill you.” Toby snorted softly behind his scarf. They would kill him whether he raised his voice or not. He only then seemed to realise Toby was sitting on his chest of drawers, blade in hand.

“We aren’t here to talk about the oppression,” Oliver continued. “I’m sure you must have read in the paper of the Night Wanderer that was shot by one of the Guard not long ago?” Prendergast nodded worriedly. “His death was caused by the abnormal number of Dark Keepers surrounding your house that night. Dark Keepers that were not supposed to be there. We have documents that prove that there were more guards in this district than there should have been. This means that you paid them to guard your home.”

“What are you saying?” Prendergast asked. Toby was surprised by his seeming lack of fear. Maybe he thought he was dreaming.

“I’m saying that you are clearly up to something the government does not know about, nor do you want them to. Why were there so many men guarding you that night, Peter?”

Prendergast kept his mouth firmly shut.

Oliver flipped his dagger threateningly and Toby strengthened his grasp on his knife. “You have one more chance to tell me what you were doing, or we will have to assume that it was more of a danger than the government. There seems to be very little the government would disapprove of, but you seemed to think they would disapprove of this.”

“It was a private affair,” Prendergast answered stubbornly.

Oliver sighed, almost sadly. He sheathed the dagger and straightened up. Toby saw the portly man relax noticeably, like he thought he had gotten away with it. Toby gripped his knife and hopped down from the drawers. He locked eyes with Prendergast, who blanched and tried to scramble away, running in Oliver’s direction.

Toby leapt clumsily onto the bed, grasped Prendergast around the shoulders with his free arm and proceeded to run his blade across his target’s throat. Oliver, sprayed with blood, jumped back in disgust and stared down horrified at his coat. Toby let the man fall, screaming silently as air whistled through the gash in his neck, blood streaming down his chin. He half crawled towards Oliver, one hand clutching his torn throat while the other reached out to the boy in desperation. He tilted forward after a few seconds, sprawled across the ground with his arm still outstretched. His eyes stared blankly into space, still showing his last moments of terror.

Toby wiped off the worst of the blood on the sickeningly expensive bed quilt.
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