Ezra Harbisher woke at five o’clock; not a second before or after. He began his morning ritual by pouring cold water in the marble basin in silence. The soap, crafted from goat’s milk, kept a youthful glow on his ageing face. He groomed his beard, ensuring his bushy sideburns and moustache were exquisitely trimmed. Tailored trousers and pressed white dress shirt hugged his plump form. He finished the look with an emerald coat and cravat tie. Ezra relished in his rank of auspicious merchant. So much so, he began every day reviewing inventory lists until precisely seven.
He sat in his usual chair, against the sunny picture window, drinking his coffee and browsing the morning correspondence. His eldest, Eve, taking after her father’s resigned calmness, ate her oatmeal in silence. However, it was Claire, the youngest, who diverged from the morning protocol. At ten, she took after her mother, which was both a blessing and a cause of scrutiny. She gossiped, ranted, and illustrated a range of emotion before the cook finished the eggs. The room was only silent if she had some matter of food shoved into her little mouth.
His wife Madeline, fifteen years his junior, indulged the child’s rambles. Maddie had blessed him with two children, something his first wife was unable to do. She loved her daughters with all her heart, stating they were the real treasure in life. Ezra, although understanding of the sentiment disagreed. He travelled the world, obtaining items never seen by anyone else. He loved his family, but they failed to compare to the wonders outside their domestic life. He, of course, kept those opinions to himself.
“Papa,” Claire announced pulling his attention from his letters. “Dusty said there was a fire in the Theatre District last night. He said the Mage church and two homes burn to the ground.”
“People have been trying to find a way to destroy that cathedral for years. Perhaps they will finally build over that slum.”
“Claire darling,” Madeline chimed in, “it isn’t proper for you to be on such terms with the milk boy. He is below your class.”
“I know mummy, but he always has the best stories.”
“Claire honey remember classes exist for a reason. It is best he stays where he belongs, and you do the same. I don’t want you to talk to him anymore, do I make myself clear?”
“Yes mummy,” she sighed, shoving a spoon of oatmeal into her mouth.
“Father?” Eve asked, her voice was always patient, “has the new shipment of silk arrived? I want to place my order for a new dress. Lady Spencer’s annual dance is in three months time.” At almost sixteen Eve was becoming a beautiful young woman. Suitors were already negotiating their offers. But he turned them away, waiting for the perfect business opportunity to present itself.
“It is expected any day now. Do not fret my darling, you will be the most beautiful of them all.” He smiled at her, as he opened the envelope from his business partner.
“What is the matter dear?” she asked noticing her husband’s furrowed brow.
“Joshua says Lord Sexton is acting out of character; inquiring about new buyers for some rare artifacts.”
“What do you care what Lord Sexton does, you are five times more successful than him.”
“Because my dear, he is a rival. And I rather him not monopolize on a new market without my knowledge.” The clock chimed eight o’clock prompting Ezra to gather his letters. He kissed each of the women in his life goodbye before leaving the house at exactly quarter past the hour.
From the front stoop he surveyed the usual hustle and bustle of his domain. Men in trousers checked their pocket watches as they hurried to their tasks. Women in lace and muslin strolled over the cobblestone, whispering secrets in pairs. Horse drawn carriages rattled over the stones while the street corner philosophers greeted the morning by debating long dead scholars. The weather favored him; the cool summer breeze pushed the foul factory smoke to the south. Instead of the rotting stench, he was greeted with the aroma of fresh bread from Mrs. Derry’s bakery one block over. He breathed in the scent, pleased at his corner of paradise. He ventured passed the iron gate surrounding his patch of lawn and walked exactly one block before a newcomer interrupted him. The young boy, about fourteen, wore clean but patched clothes. Over his neck hung a cheap wooden tray. Next to his worn-out boots lounged a skinny white dog with black spots.
“’Excuse me, sir, do you want to buy a ribbon?” The tray held multiple spools of various ribbons in a range of colors and sizes. He frowned, knowing well enough he, himself, had better quality at his own business.
“Not today, lad.”
“Maybe for the Missus?” “I won’t allow her to wear such ratty ribbon.” He pushed passed him turning his expected corner towards his shop.
The Painted Horse was the one place an outsider didn’t want to get caught in. It’s shabby walls and uneven roof was the home to the Butchers, a notorious thief gang in the District. Chris picked his first pocket in the that very tavern. He grew up under the Boss’s glazed eyes. And then he vowed never again to slave away to feed Flann’s expensive habits. But at the same time, Flann was too connected to be completely cut off. His information was too good to pass up even if his company was less than desirable.
He sat at his usual table, by the crumbling fireplace with his back to the wall. At midday, the place was empty, no doubt the boys were off stealing their daily quotas. He traced the gouges cut into the table’s dull surface while sipping his drink. His gaze fell upon the two men siting at the table nearest the door. They caught his attention the moment he walked in. Who volunteers to sit by the door in an empty tavern? But he watched them watch him, a game he found amusing. As if on a schedule, they surveyed the empty tables, peered out the window, then up the stairs. Their gaze lingering on Flann’s closed office door.
“Get you another drink Chris?” asked the dazzling ebony hair maiden approaching his table.
“Julie, my little turtle dove,” he grinned. Her dark eyes softened but her mouth pursed. “Slow day my sparkling jewel?”
“Yea,” she wiped the table, “the usual?” She kept fidgeting with the stray lock which refused to stay behind her ear.
“You know it and a side of that pretty face of yours to go with me tonight?”
“How ’bout just the wine” she sighed, having heard the same line before. “Better stick with that, you know how Flann gets when you start asking for the other sorta thing.”
He chuckled but his stomach twisted at his name. He had his hand in almost everything in the neighborhood and Julie wasn’t an exception. She was everything and anything Flann needed her to be. As of late she was the unofficial manager of the Horse. She wasn’t happy being a lap dog, most weren’t, but she didn’t have any choice.
“Where is everyone?” he asked when she returned with the wine. “It’s a ghost town in here, well minus those guys in the corner.”
His interest in the strangers grew with every mouthful of the robust sweet wine. They looked like the rest of the scoundrels who called the District home. But the patches on their clothes seemed more decorative than functional. If he didn’t know any better, he would say their garments were new. Then there was the tall wiry one. He refused to touch the table or his mug. Nothing this down wind from the factories was what anyone can call clean. Over and Madame Belle’s, he watched a cat snag a dead rat from the tabletops. But Julie kept the place ship shape; some say the best place in the District. If the Horse wasn’t good enough for him it means he’s accustomed to better.
“Bar wench!” As predicted, she stormed over with the cute scowl he loved so much.
“I told you to stop calling me that!”
“I know, but I love that face you make.” He motioned for her to come closer, “what are the Blue Bloods doing here?” It was always suspicious when the rich found their way into their neck of the woods.
“I dunno,” she whispered back, “but by the sounds of it, Flann isn’t happy with what their boss has to say.” She motioned upstairs where muffled shouts vibrated from Flann’s apartment. A yell rocked the door, followed by shouts that boomed into the quiet tavern. Flann, ‘disagreeing’ with another deal. She sighed, shaking her head and squeezed the tray to her chest.
“Jules, are you okay?”
“Yea, just the usual stuff, you know.” She shook her head dismissing a private thought before adding: “And the new girl’s as useless as tits on a bull.”
“Why was she hired then?”
“You know why.” Her eyes narrowed, like a scorned woman. The door upstairs burst open with a resounding clatter. Ever matter of object from cup, cushion and book was whipped through the air; crashing over the stairs.
“Get, away with ya! And don’t you come back near these parts! If I see your yeller belly again, I’ll gut you like a fish!”
A thin rat faced man scurried from the room, his arms protecting his head from the onslaught of objects. His companions topple the table sending mugs and alcohol crashing to the floor. They stand poised for a fight with drawing the daggers at their waist. However, their triumphant fight ends as their boss flees the tavern. With the battle over before it started, they follow in tow and leave.
“Looks like it’s my turn,” he grinned.
“Oh don’t, you know how he gets when he’s in a foul mood.”
“No worries, my little sapphire.” He stroked her chin before racing to the stairs. Climbing the steps two at a time, he reaches the door before Julie could get another word in edgewise. He rapped his knuckles in the dingy wood but swung it open before he heard a reply. The stench of sweat, cigars and alcohol invaded his nose as he faced Flann with a plastered-on smile.
“Hey there boss man, how’s it going?”
“Not now Chris, I don’t ‘ave time for yea.”
“Ah come on, that’s how you treat your favourite son?”
“If you were my babe, I’ve killed you before you took yer first step.” He grumbled, hobbling to his worn cushioned chair in the corner.
His fiery mane overflowed past his shoulders while his matching beard tumbled over his protruding gut. He didn’t look like much but Chris knew better than to cross the man’s legendary temper. One minute he’s shaking your hand the next he’s stabbing you in the back. It was all in his eyes. The emerald spheres, sharp and calculating, never stray from their target. A true huntsman, who uses the streets as his forest path. He didn’t know if the pink cheeks were from shouting or drinking, but with Flann, it was hard to tell which was which.
“I guess I’m the lucky one eh?” He walked to the table behind the door and sniffed one of the many unlabeled bottles.
“Yer looking for a new job, or did the cathedral fire pay for yer summer retreat in the countryside?” He took a swing from his steel mug.
“You know me, why waste my time somewhere else when I can waste my time here.” The rancid beer in the green bottle smelled earthy and sour; like a long dead skunk. “But I see your little sewer rats keep you well informed.”
“Noth’n in this District hap’ns without me knowing,” he coughs, “I got wee birdies everywhere.”
“What about those guys? Did they need use of those fine feathered friends of yours?” The fragrant grapes waif through his nostrils; with a grin he pours himself a healthy glass. He senses Flann’s eyes shooting like daggers in his back. Any minute one of his concealed knives could fly from their hiding place. But Chris loved skirting all types of lines.
“What do you know of ‘em?”
“I know they’re a bit far from their neck of town. So, my question is, what’s so important that the Blue Bloods cross over to see you. It sure ain’t for your hospitality.”
“What’s it matter to you?” He takes a swig of his mug and wipes the dribbles from his mustache with the back of his dirty sleeve. “Ya forfeited yer right to say a damn thing about what I do when ya walked out that there door.”
“That’s right,” he hummed. He slid his fingers through the thick dust on the gold painted frame hanging over the fireplace. He glanced at the feathered strokes of the grassy hills and the woolly balls of grey sheep. “You’re the boss, no one tells you what you can and can’t do.”
“And you won’t let any dandy of a Blue Blood order you around.”
“That’s what I tells ‘em!” He slammed his fist on the armrest, spilling the contents of his mug over the faded material. “They don’t like ta answer, but its my way or noth’n. I tells ‘im, I says if ya’s asking for that then I ain’t doin it fa free.”
“Come back with more money and you’ll talk.”
“Everything has a price,” he mumbled, “you’re a strict negotiator.”
“Like they don’t ‘ave the gold. I knows they do, I just want my share is’all”
“What are they asking you to do?” His mouth opens but slams shut again and devilish grin creased his whiskey lips.
“You ask too many questions boy. Ma business is mys own. Now get!” Chris finished his drink, savoring the last of the fruity nectar as it snaked down his throat.
“Thanks for the drink boss, until next time.” The door slammed behind him and Julie met him at the bottom of the stairs.
“You must be a cat with nine lives.”
“Nah,” he waved his hand dismissing the thought. He’s handled the old man in worse moods. But him drinking all morning helped tease some details from those iron clad lips of his. “What else do you remember about the Blue Bloods; you get any names?”
“What are you up too?”
“Just curious is all,”
“You ever wonder what it would be like if we weren’t stuck in this dump?”
“You aren’t thinking of leaving me are you, my ruby jewel?”
“Chris, be honest, why are you still here? You paid for your freedom, you can get out and have a real life…”
“You know why.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, “I said it before, my life is in Lollardum. I won’t leave it behind.”
“Some life…” she scoffed, “it’s not like you have anything more than the rest of us.” He paused pushing the dreams which will never materialize from his mind.
“Did you remember anything else about the Blue Bloods?”
“They paid with this,” she handed him a black coin. Engraved on the black matte surface were strange silver symbols. It was heavy like a metal coin, but something felt off with the surface. It felt plated with something he didn’t recognize.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know, I said this wasn’t money but Flann ordered me to give them what they wanted regardless.”
“Do you mind?”
“Take it, it’s worthless to me.”
Continue onward to Chapter Three.
Return to read Chapter One.
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