Julie reveled in the morning stillness. She didn’t sleep much anymore, waking from absent dreams with a damp blanket of dread. But the early morning opening was different. She stood at the deserted bar wiping dust from its scratched surface with a bar rag. The sun shined through the dirty windows, casting beams over the uneven planked floor. Behind the sprawling counter was a backdrop of bottles and shimmering dishware. She was content, knowing in that moment she achieved something. It was her domain, even if only in spirit.
Flann was still passed out from the previous night’s crowd. The underlings and under bosses paid their nightly tribute. The results included overflowing drinks and one table succumbing to the consequences of a heated brawl. Upstairs creaked as the rest of them began to stir. She heard shuffling from the Molls rooms, soon they’ll awake and demand breakfast. Her favorite part was watching the Johns sheepishly sneak out. The tinge of embarrassment blush across their cheeks as they retreated to their wives. She wanted to reassure them, let them know, she didn’t judge. But it wasn’t her business, not to mention she gave up caring what people thought of her years ago. The ladies upstairs provided a service, and she won’t put a working girl down. Well, except one.
The new girl. They cycle so often she gave up remembering their names. But the dropped utensils signaled her location. She fumbled through everything; sweeping, dishwashing, and cleaning the fireplaces. If it was Julie’s choice, she’d be gone. But she was Flann’s new flavor of the week. It was a matter of time before he “promoted” her and she’d cease being Julie’s problem. In the meantime, she tucked the clean glasses under the bar as a clump of spoons bounced over the kitchen floor.
The door flung open, ushering in a stream of scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells. Despite the ragged clothes and dark circles hanging under their eyes, they greeted her with a cheer. Coins jingled in their pockets as they flocked to the bar. The mead flowed; tables vibrated as they dragged them near the hearth at the opposite end. The lively atmosphere put a smile on her face. Her hands moved in the routine motions, ensuring each order was to her standard. The tavern sprung to life as the laughed recounting the nights adventures and she soaked it all in.
Chris tailed behind the group and claimed the rickety stool at the bar. He sat hunched over spinning a silver coin on the bar top. His usual banter was nonexistent. Instead of making eye contact he focused on the metal spinning over the scratched wood. He ignored everyone in the room including her.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked as his coin toppled over on the counter.
“I have a job.”
“And that’s bad?”
“Not sure. What do you know about this guy?” He slid a crumpled note across the bar. It had a name and address scrawled in long elegant handwriting. Ezra Harbisher, he sounded like a Blue Blood for sure. But the address, that area she knew. She did a job there a few months back. The women there like to shop and the men liked to work. Everyone had maids who babysat the greedy offspring.
“Never heard of ‘im. But Milo works Primrose, he might know something.”
“What’s the kid doing up there?”
“He sells ribbons to the Blue Bloods.” It was a hopeless endeavor, but it made him happy and kept him out of trouble. “I’ll go get him.” The boy sat among the younger pick pockets at the farther edge of the long table. She brought him to the bar where he crawled up the stool next to Chris.
“You’re Milo huh?”
“Yup, that’s me. Julie said you needed help.” He brought the oversized mug to his face and took a gulp.
“I need information.” He slid the paper to him but Milo stared at the letters. A faint blush creeped up his neck to the tips of his ears. Chris glanced at her, arriving at the same conclusion; the boy couldn’t read. “Julie said you worked the Primrose block. Do you know anything about a Ezra Harbisher?”
“Oh yeah, I know ‘im. He’s a weird one. But his daughter’s pretty.”
“Don’t you get any ideas.” Julie read the smirk crossing Chris’s face, “you don’t want to get messed up with those girls.”
“You’re putting words in my mouth and dirty thoughts in my virgin mind.” He smirked but she rolled her eyes and returned to pouring drinks. “What can you tell me about the house?”
“Big,” the kid shrugged.
“How many floors? Servants? Occupants? What’s their schedule like? C’mon kid, details.”
Milo was a pickpocket he didn’t think like a burglar. When she or Chris saw a house, they thought of entrances and exits. They thought about how many windows faced the street or the path the patrols took. The kid saw pretty yards and the cute maids who came and went. With a lot of prying, he divulged the answers. During the lulls between orders, she paused to participate in the interrogation. Three floors, and a family of four. She presumed six servants, although, she didn’t count a tutor for the girls. As they talked the weary exhaustion vanished from Chris’s face. His eyes sparkled with a mischievous grin and she knew where his brain was heading.
“Julie my sweet, can I borrow your expertise? You are the best House Sparrow in these parts.”
“What’s my cut?”
“My eternal gratitude?”
“Gratitude doesn’t pay my debts.”
“Fine, I’ll pay your usual plus a finder’s fee.”
“A decent finder’s fee.”
“Alright, alright. I guess I’ll pay you something too but don’t expect as much as her.” Milo’s face brightened. Neither of them left that bar until they memorized the plan.
As the sun climbed into the dismal sky, she spied Milo taking his position at his usual street corner. His pooch sat upright, flipping his needle tail from side to side as he sniffed the tray of ribbons. Between them stood the merchant’s house. Plump flowerpots offered a splash of color to the stone yard. An iron gate surrounded the property; a reminder for her to stay out of their world. No matter, there was always a way in. Every defense had a vulnerability.
During the planning, Chris mentioned the lattice, the thief’s ladder to the impossible. She eyed it, noting it reached the roof passing two floors of windows. Leafy vines twisted around the wood and gripped the surrounding brick. Foliage, rich and lush, was rare in the District. It was why she liked her role of House Sparrow; it granted a reprieve from the dirt and grime. The sculpted bushes, the vibrant trees, even the variety of flowers leant her mind to a place of dreams. The soil in the District was thin and dusty. Here, above the factory run off pools, plants grew. Chris might have been heartless enough to destroy such beauty. But for her, the lattice wasn’t her forte.
The dog barked, signaling her to the task at hand. She adjusted her bonnet and smoothed the wrinkles of her olive cotton dress. It suited her; allowing her to blend in with the other working poor of the neighborhood. It was a step up from her usual attire but nowhere near as fancy as the Blue Bloods. Her fitted dress accented her curves and best attributes but wasn’t salacious. Female thieves were better at blending in because they looked more trustworthy. She sought her out because she was the only one capable of stealing the diadem during the daylight hours.
As Milo predicted, Mr. Harbisher emerged from his house at exactly quarter past eight. With his attention drawn to Milo, who emitted a fresh determination for chit chat, she approached from behind. Her heart raced in her chest; an exhilaration that never got old. The merchant used cultivated grace to dodge the boy’s eagerness, but to no avail. It happened in a blur, between the dog’s jovial barks and a fallen shawl, her hand slipped into his pocket and removed his key. His eyes drifted from her dress to her face. The faint blush on his aging cheeks told her his thoughts were not on his right breast pocket. Her hand lingered on his left arm as she apologised for her clumsiness. His stuttered goodbye followed her as she crossed the street. As she slipped from view, she tucked the key into a secret pocket in her dress, no one the wiser.
She bobbed and weaved through the narrow servant path leading to the back of the property. With her back straight and her eyes alert, she spied the gaps in the hedges and the street exit. Her palms were sticky from sweating in her fashionable gloves. Despite the excitement swelling in her chest, she took a deep breath before pressing her ear against the door. Most houses were cookie cutter copies of each other. A few features differed from home to home but the layout remained the same. If memory served her correctly that door led to the kitchen.
It didn’t budge but it didn’t stop the smile from creeping over her lips. The kitchen help already left for the shops. She loved how the Blue Bloods sought safety in routine; it always made her life easier. The brass key clicked, granting her access. The head of the house always carried the master key.
She tiptoed into the kitchen; noting the cleanliness and pile of dishes left to dry on the counter. Pots and pans, scrubbed and glistening, hung on hooks from the ceiling. A bowl of root vegetables sat on the bulky table which doubled as a preparation station. Across the worn wooden planks, she slithered into the hallway, and up the servant stairs. The old man would keep his expensive items close to where he slept. Maybe even on display; Blue Bloods liked to show off how much money they waste.
“Who are you?” came a harsh voice from behind. “What’s your business?” A plump stout woman stood in the doorway. Julie steeled herself like a guard before he breaks up a riot. She slapped on the most genuine smile she could muster.
“Forgive me,” she gave a small bob, “but the agency sent me. I’m answering a post for a new servant position; chambermaid?”
“I didn’t know the Mistress was hiring anyone.” The woman pushed her chin towards the ceiling; regarding her with harsh caramel eyes. She repeated the address of the house and the woman nodded.
“Then I’m in the right place. If you doubt me, send word to the agency. If not then I would like to have my interview, please. Is the Mistress home?”
“She and Miss Claire stepped out. But I’ll send for Mrs. Hudson. Sit there, she’ll straighten this out.”
“Thank you,” Julie smiled, walking into the room the woman pointed. She assumed Mrs. Hudson oversaw the servants. From her experience those women were the no-nonsense type. Best to stay clear. Once alone, she made her way to the staircase; listening for any sign of Mrs. Hudson. The third stair creaked under her boot; echoing through the silent foyer. A servant girl with curls tucked under her bonnet approached from the left. She carried a sponge and scrub bucket of soapy water which slopped over the side as she approached.
“Beg your pardon, miss” the servant bobbed, “but are you supposed to be here?”
“Mrs. Glover sent me, to fetch the garments your Mistress wanted her to mend. Miss Claire had grown a few inches since last time.”
“Growing like a weed that one is. But I’m sorry, I can’t let you upstairs, it’s not proper, you see.”
“Oh, its okay, Mrs. Hudson sent me up. She’s busy downstairs with the well-” she motioned to the girth of the plump servant she escaped from.
“Oh yes, her…She’ll be busy with her for a while I suspect. Alright then if Mrs. Hudson says it’s alright.”
“Thanks so much, Mrs. Glover is in a foul mood today and I just want to get back before she has another go at me.”
“Say no more,” she winked. “The girl’s rooms are down there.”
“Thanks again, I appreciate it.”
“No worries, miss, best of luck.” She bobbed again then headed down the stairs to the kitchen.
Her heart pounded in her throat as she climbed the carpeted steps. The minutes ticked by with each step, counting down until they discover the serpent in their midst. Three wrong doors led to the correct one; a study acting as a museum. A John took her to one once. It was part of the deal; he pretended he had a girlfriend and she imagined she was someone else. For one afternoon she strolled among women of culture arm in arm with men in suits. The merchant’s study transported her to that place. A rich ornamental rug lined the middle of the room. On either side was a row of items placed in glass. Each emitting a curious beauty she never saw before; windows to a foreign land. But despite the treasures on display the coveted diadem wasn’t in sight. Chris, if this is a goose chase, I’ll chop off your—
“Who are you?” Came a sharp voice from behind her. Julie swore under her breath. She wasn’t a servant like the others, her voice was direct and didn’t care who it offended. A young Blue Blood. The girl, with styled dark hair, never took her eyes off Julie. Not even when she closed the door behind her. Is this the pretty Miss Eve Milo can’t stop talking about?
“Mrs. Glover sent me to—”
“I doubt that; Mother hates that detestable woman.” Time wasn’t on her side, and she didn’t have any to waste on games. Rich or not she was still a brat.
“If you’re planning to run tell someone then go do it. If not leave, I got work to do.”
“Father knows every merchant in the kingdom,” she motioned to the glass cases. “There is no way to sell these items without the authorities tracing it back to here. But…” she took a step forward, “I can show you to the safe, money is less traceable.”
“A tempting offer, but I’m here for a certain item. Your father has a silver tiara, is it in the safe?”
“Oh that, no you will find that on the desk.” She nodded towards a silver box beside a stack of opened books. Crossing the room, Julie grabbed it, but Eve’s imprudent stare cheapened her success. “You need a key. I can open it for you if you like.” She studied Eve’s face, trying to find her angle. Any moment Mrs. Hudson could find her, or worse the merchant. Time was running out but she couldn’t leave without confirming the tiara was inside. Chris needed it, the item put him on edge, which worried her more than she cared to admit.
“You realize I am stealing from your father, right?” Eve approached her, grabbing the box from her grip. Her face was expressionless as she ran her fingers underneath the metallic object. Somewhere inside a small click sounded and the locked clasp popped. Like a jeweler, she opened the lid revealing the glistening silver diadem. It was fit for royalty, something the old mothers talked about from days of old.
“My father ruined my life,” she confessed. But a deep seeded anger hid behind her stoic face. “It is only fair he should suffer for a momentary loss. He must understand he can always get another treasure; but he can never get a daughter back once he lost her.”
“I’m sure he loves you very much dear,” Julie never had a father to argue with, nor a mother to offer any consolable advice. But the moment demanded some words of wisdom. “This will blow over and he will be back to buying you pretty things before you know it.”
“You have no idea what I am going through!” She bit back, “he ruined everything. I will die a spinster because of him.”
“Welcome to life,” she muttered wrapping the diadem in her shawl. She knew all to well about men ruining the lives of women. “They have all the power and money while we scrape by. It’s the same in every class. Only difference is you’ll have a roof over your head in the end.”
“Is this the part where you tell me I should just accept it and get over it?”
“No, women been ‘accepting it’ and ‘getting over it’ for generations. My advice; be angry.” She never thought to find a kindred spirit in the frail body of a snotty Blue Blood. But she walked out of the room knowing she had left her mark.
Urgent steps thundered over the stairs, a red-faced scowling man, crested the landing before Julie could hide. His beady eyes bore into her. Instinctively she clutched the shawl to her chest. Don’t panic, she told herself. But her safety hung on a crux.
“Who are you?” he bellowed, “what are you doing in my house!”
“Mrs. Glover sent her,” Eve answered from the study’s doorway.
“But why is she leaving my private study.”
Eve’s words rambled off a lie no fool would ever believe. The ticking counted down and the tinging bell sounded. It spurred her feet into action, darting to Mr. Harbisher. Ducking under his bear like arm and over the stairs. She hoisted her skirts higher, clamoring over the steps, and dodging the scrub maid. Her foot kicked the metal bucket beside her, forcing her to race ahead of the soapy water rolling over the floor. Chaos erupted as the merchant clomped over the steps. Her heart slammed against her ribs. The foyer was a blur but a small child came into focus. Miss Claire, with a devious grin, extended her foot into her path.
She fumbled but caught her balance. She clutched the bundle to her chest, as she slipped into the first-floor room. A potted tree was the first casualty, crashing to the hardwood; the soil rolling over the wood. Fists hammered against the door, rattling it against its hinges. An open window called to her, she took her chance and slipped through as something heavy slammed against the door.
Her knees wobbled. But she forced herself across the narrow backyard and crawled under the leafy hedge. Stray clumps of hair stuck to her face as beads of sweat dripped to her brow. Her chest heaved, constricted by the jacket of her dress. Cowering in the dirt she forced her shaking limbs to settle. Behind the intricate branches she spied the window. The merchant’s sweaty flushed face emerged from the opening, scanning the yard for any movement. Seconds crawled by and her lungs ached, but she waited. Her body contorted in a position even the Molls would have trouble with. Twigs and rocks jabbed her pudgy muscles but then merchant’s head retreated inwards.
As the window slammed shut, she tore off her bonnet and gloves. Removed the jacket leaving it in a bundle under the undergrowth. Under it she placed the key, she knew it wasn’t worth returning; not after today. Slipping the tiara in a pocket in her underskirt she clutched her knees to her chest to steady her breathing. In and out, it was what they promised. It was far from perfect. She crawled on unsteady legs, pushing past branches until she emerged in the neighboring yard.
Dirty and wrinkled, she did her best to make herself presentable. Once he called the patrols, her chance of escape plummeted. Pulling the shawl over her shoulders, she tied it in a knot at her breast. Obeying years of training she stepped on to the walkway liked she belonged there. Quick but calm she reached the street, her heart lightened as she spotted Milo at his corner. But his pup stood at his side; more alert than before. It happened in a breath, the front door crashing open, frantic shouting and a dog’s bark.
“Help! Help!” the merchant shrieked, “I have been robbed!”
Instinct took command, she turned in the opposite direction. Head down and purposeful steps. A patrol soldier with dented armour, appeared before her, clutching his sheathed sword to his side. Her knees wobbled; she clutched her shaking hands to her chest. His boots thundered as he answered the merchant’s alarm, gathering speed as he reached her.
“Out of the way miss,” he barked as he pushed her to the side.
Impossible, she thought as she crossed the street. Taking refuge in the alley she peered from the shadows. The two men argued from the stoop, but she couldn’t make out what they said. Her attention turned to Milo, who held the tray in one hand and Inkspot’s rope collar with the other. Run, she screamed in her head. Get out kid. It was subtle, a sidelong look from the Merchant, that sent her heart to her throat.
“Come on Jules,” Chris’s voice drifted in her ear. “We got to go.” His scent: sweat, mixed with days old perfume, told her he was behind her. But she didn’t keep her eyes off the Merchant’s home. The old Blue Blood pointed a long finger at Milo; giving him a death sentence.
“No, Chris. He’s just a kid.”
Milo didn’t move. Not when the Merchant accused him, nor when the soldier approached. The sword glistened in the sun as the soldier pulled it free. The barking reverberated through the street; greeting passersby who stopped to watch.
“Did you get it? Jules did you get the diadem?”
She read the realization on the boy’s face. But it was too late; as he turned to flee the soldier grabbed his shirt. The tray toppled over and a rainbow of ribbon unraveled over the cobblestones. Inkspot growled, hunched to the ground ready to pounce.
“Do something!” she ordered, gripping the shawl to her chest. It was her fault he was there. If she kept her mouth shut yesterday…
“Jules, we need to go!” his palm squeezed her shoulder.
Milo struggled, tossing his frail body side to side. The dog leaped, feinting an attack. As Milo fell to the gutter Inkspot lunged; sinking his teeth into the soldier’s exposed sleeve. She felt his raging agony. He flung the creature and the spotted body bounced over the street. Chris yanked her arm, pulling her from the scene. He wiped the tear rolling down her cheek before insisting they leave.
“You’re going to make him your fall guy?” She spat, disgusted with his selfishness.
“Julie. That diadem is more than any of this. More than him, more than us. More than this shitty kingdom. I need to get it and you out of here before it gets worse.”
She glanced over her shoulder watching as Inkspot jumped to his feet and bounded towards the soldier. He leapt to defend Milo; shielding him from the soldier’s strike. When he attacked again the man didn’t cower, instead, he swung the sword cutting the dog’s lean flesh. Wounded but not beaten, Inkspot made a last stand growling as the man approached.
Milo, clutching his arm across his chest, pulled at the dog, urging him to run. The soldier thrashed his sword once more, causing the fatal wound. Blood sprayed in the air as Inkspot fell limp. Milo’s scream echoed in her ears as Chris forced her down the alley. Guilt gnawed at her with each step. Her hatred and disgust for her friend growing as they raced farther from the scene. She knew she’d never forgive herself. Nor him. Never him and his stupid greed.
Revisit Chapter Eleven!
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