The sack over my head itched my face and fingers dug into my skinny 12-year-old arms, fingers of adults. All I could think of was why I didn't accept Luther's invitation to tea. My heart was in my throat and I could barely breathe through it.
I thought I'd be okay ignoring Luther, that he would simply leave me alone. How stupid of me. I should have known better.
My breaths rattled as the men dragged me through a door, which I knew was a door because my foot caught on the threshold and I would've tripped if not for them half carrying me at this point.
They'd pulled me right out of my bed. It was a moonless night. If there was moonlight, then I'd at least be able to have some comfort of light pushing through the sack.
They shoved in in a hard cold chair. Itchy rope scratched across my wrists and chest - my bare chest, because they'd pulled me out of my bed. Sort of. It was a nightmare that woke me, but they'd definitely pulled me off the balcony when I stepped outside because I heard a noise.
I should have stayed in bed.
I should have found a way to get rid of my nightmare.
All the things I should have done.
Goosebumps lined my body. The scent of dead leaves flew into the room, a breeze through an open door that clicked shut. A shiver shook my body. Heavy footsteps clunked on a creaky floor. They grew closer. And closer. A pop of a joint. A calloused hand grabbed the back of my neck.
A chuckle, low and genuine.
"You can't decline an invitation to tea, sweetie."
I wanted to run, to curl into a ball. More than that, I dreaded when he would take the sack off my head.
A clink, liquid pouring, another clink.
"If you'd accepted my invitation, then we could be doing this in my office, on the nice cozy sofa in front of the warm fire. How about a spot of tea? You look cold."
The sack was ripped from my head. I stared down at my shabby brown trousers. If I stared at them too long, then Luther would know I was afraid. I couldn't let him know. I forced my eyes to look into his. Brown eyes, curly, short hair, dark skin. As a street kid, I'd done a fine job keeping away from men like him. Until now.
He untied the rope around my wrists and handed me a little teacup, decorated in pastel butterflies and flowers. The room was dim, lit by two dusty lamps. In front of me was a little table, a stool, really, with the tray of tea on it. Across from that was Luther.
"Scone?" he asked.
I tried to shake my head, but it was all I could do to keep my teacup from rattling on the little plate. He handed me one anyways.
"Now," he said as he leaned back in his chair, as if getting comfortable, "Mylo Whipper. What a name." He took a sip from his tea. My heart bounced up and down like a ball behind my ribcage. "Where's Whipper come from? That's quite unique."
I forced a laugh, something, anything to seem even a tiny bit brave. "Whippersnapper," I said. My voice cracked. This was a lie, albeit a lie everyone in my side of the city believed. Whipper came from being whipped so often in the orphanage. The other kids weren't punished as often as me, but I suppose I was a bit rambunctious. It was why the faint white lines decorated my back to this day, even though it'd been five years since I ran away from the orphanage.
Luther stared at me like he could read my thoughts, a quiet smile resting on his face. My nostrils flared. Not at Luther, but at Fulke, the boy who now worked for Luther and who used to be one of my best friends. Fulke, the betrayer. We were in the orphanage together and worked on the streets together. Fulke was one of the few people who knew the origin of my real name. Now I'd just lied to Luther, who probably knew I was lying. Damn it! However, ask anyone on the street where my name came from and they'd say Whippersnapper.
"Little Mylo Whipper, king of the street rats." He smiled. "I have a job for you."
I took a sip from my tea. It calmed me the tiniest bit of bits. I offered a smile in return. It was forced. "Go on."
"Have you noticed anything strange going on lately? On the streets?" he asked.
I flicked my eyes down at my tea. I knew where this was going, and I had no desire to get involved. Luther leaned forward and set his tea down. He raised his eyebrows. I meant to speak, but I took a bite of my scone, by accident, of course. It was dry and I washed it down with tea, but I didn't care how it tasted. I was hungry. I was always hungry.
"You're a smart boy," Luther said. "I know you've noticed these kidnappings. Of children, just like you. Or kids even younger. Maybe age, oh, I don't know... seven?"
Damn it, Fulke. My best friend's little brother was seven. Fulke must have told Luther everything.
"Mr. Luther, sir, what do you want from me?"
"I want to find out who's kidnapping the children."
"Why do you care about street kids?"
"I don't, really. But the person who's kidnapping street rats is also putting a stop to some of my business exchanges. I need to find out who."
"Respect, sir, but I manage just fine without you."
He smiled, mocking and knowing of many things I was unaware of. "You're hired."
"No, thank you." I didn't even know what the job was.
"The chancellor is looking for a boy to study with his son, who is apparently incapable of interacting with other children. I need someone who is quick on his feet and resiliant to such personalities. I need you, sweetie."
I stood up. "Thank you for the tea, Mr. Luther, but I have a job."
Like a whip, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me forward. Tea cups rattled on the tray as I bumped into it, nearly crashing it to the floor. I wasn't wearing any shoes, so I was glad that didn't happen. My heart crashed into my ribs over and over again.
He pulled me close to him so that our noses were nearly touching. "You will accept my offer. If you don't, I'll take that dump of a home away from you and all the kids who live in it. Understand?"
"Eh. And if I do accept your offer?" I fought to keep my voice steady.
"You'll get paid, of course. Enough to give you meat to eat every week."
That was a lot of money, since meat was the most expensive thing to buy in the city. Me and the kids only ate meat every few months.
On the other hand, Luther was one of those men who didn't exactly follow the rules of the city. I wasn't perfect either, I'd had to steal when I was younger, but now that I coordinated all the kids to work, we were able to eat at least once a day and keep shelter over our heads. But Luther, he was one of the men that would kill if it came down to it.
I would need to discuss the offer with my best friend, who helped me in caring for the kids. But I knew he would say no.
"The chancellor will invite you to tea, soon, to offer you a position at the manor. I suggest you accept. When you do, come tell me and we'll talk more about details." His grip loosened on my wrist.
"Thank you, Mr. Luther, but I can't accept your offer."
He smiled and patted my arm. "Then I hope you have enough clothes to stay warm this winter." He stood up. "But who knows, you might get kidnapped and find yourself in a coal mine. I hear they can be quite toasty." He shrugged and said, "Cramped." Then he knocked on the door and bellowed, "Take him home!"
I hoped this was the right decision. If me and the kids were kicked onto the streets, most of them wouldn't survive.