Emma shuddered and turned away.
“Very good,” said Sharon, and then he looked at Emma. “Now you try.”
“If we must do this,” she said, “I’ll pretend to be mute.”
That was good enough for Sharon. He opened the door and swept us out into the dying day.
The air outside was a toxic-looking yellowish soup, such that I couldn’t tell the position of the sun in the sky except to say it must’ve been getting toward evening, the light slowly leaking away. We walked a few paces behind Sharon, struggling to keep up whenever he saw someone he knew on the street and sped up to avoid conversation. People seemed to know him; he had a reputation, and I think he was concerned that we might do something to ruin it.
We made our way down oddly cheerful Oozing Street, with its window-box flowers and brightly painted houses, then turned onto Periwinkle Street, where the pavement gave way to mud and the houses to shabby, sagging flats. Men with hats pulled low over their eyes were congregating around the end of a seedy cul-de-sac. They appeared to be guarding the door to a house with its windows blacked out. Sharon told us to stay put, and we waited while he went to talk with them.
The air smelled faintly of gasoline. In the distance loud, laughing voices swelled and fell away, swelled and fell away. It was the sound of men in a sports bar watching a game—only it couldn’t have been; that was strictly a modern sound, and there were no televisions here.
A man in mud-splashed pants came out of the house. As the door swung open, the voices grew louder and then faded when it slammed shut. He walked across the street carrying a bucket. We turned, watching as he walked toward something I hadn’t noticed: a pair of bear cubs chained to a sawed-off lamppost at the edge of the street. They were terribly sad looking, with only a few feet of slack on their chains, and they sat on the muddy ground watching the man approach with something like dread, their furry ears flattened back. The man dumped some putrid table scraps before them and left without a word. The whole scene made me unutterably depressed.
“Those there are training grims,” Sharon said, and we turned to find him standing behind us. “Blood sport is big business here, and fighting a grimbear is considered the ultimate challenge. Young fighters have to train somehow, so they start out fighting the cubs.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“The bears have the day off, though, thanks to your beastie.” Sharon pointed at the little house. “He’s in there, out through the back. But before we go in, I should warn you: this is an ambrosia den, and there’ll be peculiars in there who are lit out of their minds. Don’t talk to them, and whatever you do, don’t look them in the eye. I know people who’ve been blinded that way.”
“What do you mean, blinded?” I said.
“Just what it sounds like. Now follow me and don’t ask any more questions. Slaves don’t question their masters.”
I saw Emma grit her teeth. We fell in behind Sharon as he crossed to the men clustered around the door of the house.
Sharon talked with the men. I struggled to overhear while maintaining a slavelike distance and averting my eyes. One of them told Sharon there was an “admission fee,” and he dug a coin from his cloak and paid it. Another asked about us.
“I haven’t given them names yet,” Sharon said. “Just got ’em yesterday. They’re still so green, I don’t dare let them out of my sight.”
“Is that right?” the man said, approaching us. “Don’t have names?”
I shook my head no, playing mute along with Emma. The man looked us up and down. I wanted to squirm out of my skin. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere?” he said, leaning closer.
I said nothing.
“Maybe in the window at Lorraine’s,” Sharon offered.
“Nah,” the man said, then waved his hand. “Ah, I’m sure it’ll come to me.”
I only risked a direct look at him once he’d turned away. If he was a Ditch pirate, he wasn’t one of those we’d tangled with. He had a bandage over his chin and another over his forehead. Several of the other men were similarly bandaged, and one sported an eyepatch. I wondered if they’d been injured fighting grims.
The man with the eyepatch opened the door for us. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said, “but I wouldn’t send them into the cage today, unless you’re ready to scrape them off the ground.”
“We’re just here to watch and learn,” said Sharon.
We were waved in and hurried close at Sharon’s heels, anxious to escape the door lurkers’ stares. Seven-foot Sharon had to duck to pass through the doorway, and he stayed ducked the entire time we were inside, so low were the ceilings. The room we entered was dark and reeked of smoke, and until my eyes adjusted all I could see were pinpricks of orange light glowing here and there. Slowly the room came into view, lit by oil lamps trimmed so low they gave no more light than matches. It was long and narrow, with bunk beds built into the walls like you might find in the lightless bowels of an ocean-going ship.
I tripped over something and nearly lost my balance.
“Why is it so dark in here?” I muttered, already breaking my promise not to ask questions.
“The eyes get sensitive as the effects of ambro wear off,” Sharon explained. “Even weak daylight is nearly unbearable.”
That’s when I noticed the people in the bunks, some sprawled and sleeping, others sitting up in nests of rumpled sheets. They watched us, smoking listlessly and speaking in murmurs. A few talked to themselves, reeling out incomprehensible monologues. Several had bandaged faces, like the doormen, or wore masks. I wanted to ask about the masks, but I wanted to get that hollow and get out of there even more.