Mr. Time was unlike any man Fen had ever known. He dressed like every day was confession day at the temple rectory, he had a perfectly waxed mustache that curled up at the ends, and when he talked people dropped what they were doing and listened. Ladies swoon at his very feet, red-faced and giggling, and he always seemed to be surrounded by men that would gladly do anything he asked of them.
And that was exactly as they found Mr. Time in the Cat's Cradle. You could have thought he was Emperor Peter of the Iron Empire the way he sat in the high backed chair with the card table arrayed before him, casually sitting back, sipping at a rocks glass of amber liquid from one hand, examining an array of cards in the other. Half a dozen players, like his personal Nocshatten bodyguards, were spaced out around him in supplication, waiting to donate their chips to the mountainous hoard scattered before the Syn-dee-cat man. There was a broad smile across his carefree face and he didn't seem to mind in the least that his chips had toppled over into a jumbled mess of mismatched colors. He just continued to grin and laugh. A sudden hoot from the table emperor sent those around him reeling, and then groaning as Time threw his cards to the table.
"Castle!" he roared, slamming his fists on the table in a howl of victory. He stood up and began mockingly apologize while sweeping up these new additions to his vast empire. On either side of him two expressionless women, wearing little more than corsets and garter belts, shuffled out of his way and then closed back in as he took a seat—there expressions never wavering from apathy until Time barked at one to mind his pieces. Startled into action, a busty blond crawled across the gritty flooring in pursuit of several wayward chips making their escape.
"And you," he turned his attention to the skinny blonde in pancake makeup. "My drink has spilled on my fine shirt. Be a dear and mop it up, sugar. Chop Chop," he bellowed as she looked around for a cloth. Unable to find anything, the girl was forced to use her own skirt to dab the splash of liquid dribbling from his chest to his lap. The men around hooted and catcalled at the sight of her bear thighs and revealed nickers, and the woman flushed crimson with embarrassment. Mr. Time caught sight of her expression and cackled. "Ah, honey, it ain't like no one here's seen it all before. In fact, you look over dressed, my dear…"
Time stopped the girl as she unclasped the top button to her blouse when he spied the gaggle of boys hovering just beyond the table light. Lighting quick he gave the girl a slap from behind and set her on her way. "Boys!" He yelled happily, his voice filling the little tavern with its throaty swagger.
This was the way life was meant to be, carefree and careless.
Mr. Time was such a far cry from that other man who dominated Fen's life, his father. Art Tunk had been so different, so serious and dire. Should Fen spill milk he got a lecture in waste, should he hit his sister he got a lecture in morality, should he lounge in bed he got a lecture in productivity. All he ever knew of his father was a disappointed face and stern lectures. They never talked, he was just talked at, and then, as his father got sicker, not even that. When they left the workers' district for the warren his father was all but a mute in the household, and then, for the year following, he was either too busy trying to carve a house from the warren refuse, or slugging down bottles of medicinal alcohol and muttering incomprehensibly, to take notice of his family. When he was gone Fen hardly noticed. There was just an empty chair in front of the cobbled together hearth, and nothing more.
But not Mr. Time. Mr. Time lived life: Spill your milk, we'll order more; hit your sister, she probably deserved it; lounge in bed, take the whole afternoon! Mr. Time's whole philosophy could be summed up as this: "Do whatever the hell you want when you want!"
Fen huddled close to his gang as they navigated the drunks-strewn tavern towards Mr. Time's table. Out in the streets they were big men running across the pipes and raising hell on the streets, but in the subdued lamplight of the tavern everything changed. Real men lingered in the shadows here, and they watched these intrusive boys with dangerous eyes. If not for Time, who knows what evils would have befallen these boys? Time urged them on cheerfully, waving hand as though these were his own children, and he was beckoning them over to the fire to give their papa a hug.
Murmuring followed them deep into the establishment as the walls seemed to close in and the ceiling dropped closer and closer, trying to squashing them like bugs. Fen found it hard to breathe in the pungent clouds of burning smoke. Sure, they lit up cigarettes whenever they could get their hands on them, but that was in the open air and they never breathed so deep as to fill their lungs. In the thick atmosphere of the tavern Fen coughed.
Mr. Time's held the boy's in his sly gaze. "My Boys," he said breathily. It was as though seeing them was the best thing that happened to him all day. "I was starting to wonder if you were going to grace me with the indulgence of you presence today." He suddenly snapped his finger and the world seemed to clear around him; players parted from the table with a bow, leaving behind what few chips they had left; the girls, so attentive just a moment before seemed to fade and vanish into the dust and cobwebs, and even the crowd appeared to push back as though an invisible force flowed out from that Syn-dee-cat man's finger.
Mr. Time commanded men and that thrilled the young Fen to no end.
The Boy's had plenty of space to move now; there was a cleared ring that reminded Fen of the dog fights he'd seen in the drainage ditches—where he'd watched from on high as the hardened men formed a rough circle around a steep-sided pit. Blood, fangs, and teeth came next, and yelling—but there was no yelling here, no crates housing anxious dogs, no side bets—or none the he could see anyway.
"Come on, boys, Come on, sit—all of you," said Mr. Time as he scooped up the disheveled pile of cards in front of him and began to arrange them neatly. "You did good last night, real good. That trucker won't soon skimp out on paying me my due next time. You get any good stuff out of him?"
Elad spoke first. "Not really," he said, "mostly just house wears and bedding stuff…"
"But he had chocolate," said Ratter with a smile, showing a mouth full of rotted brown teeth.
"Chocolate, that's great," laughed the Syn-dee-cat man, "you boys really are something. I send you to steal his wares and you're all gaga about chocolate, brilliant! Alright, alright—let's play a game! You know they say you can learn a lot about a man when you play cards with him. Hell, some even say you can read fortunes in the cards if you know what to look for." He began shuffling the deck, the cards overlapping, lacing together, arching rhythmically with a crisp series of pattering.
The boys drew closer; captivated by the dancing cards.