by Matencera Wolf
Nelson’s scream tore across the worksite and my head snapped to his direction. His leg had been replaced by a bleeding stump.
“We gotta help Nelson!” I shouted, raising my mallet in the air.
Charl and several other laborers charged with me, but we hadn’t taken three steps before the trappie darted from its trapdoor, and Nelson’s screams ended.
We stopped short. There was no use in chasing a trappie down its hole.
“Damn it! Get up on the wall, boys!” I shouted, and together we filtered up the thin stairways in a single file, leaving behind one of our own.
“Why aren’t you lot bloody working?” Gaz growled.
We all stood frozen and stared at one another as Gaz stomped into our midst. No one wanted to be the first to answer, the first to draw the foreman’s attention. I sighed.
“Trappie musta snuck past the wall guards last night,” I said.
Gaz’s face blanched and he tiptoed to the edge of the wall to stand beside me. His face reddened.
“Well, it’s gone now. Get back to work!”
I took a copper nail from my pouch and tossed it at the red smear a hundred feet below. All was calm for a moment; then a horned head exploded from the earth and snatched up the nail. When the dust settled, the ground was smooth once more.
“Well, don’t just stand there you idjit, send for the bloody guards!” Gaz growled.
“Already sent one’a the boys,” I replied.
Gaz glared at me and I froze.
“I’m docking your pay for wasting nails.” He smirked at me, daring me to argue, then stomped away.
Charl placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Damn it, Jo,” he whispered. “Sometimes I think you have more sack than the rest of us combined.”
Soon enough, a squad of guards sauntered across the pathway atop the wall. We moved aside to let them do their work, and they rained crossbow bolts down into our worksite, guided by our shouts.
A bolt struck home and the trappie erupted from the earth in a shower of soil. It rammed itself against my wall and pride flared in my chest when the stone repelled it. Bolts pinned its scaly form to the ground and the guards cheered.
“Give me a hand over here,” one of the armored idiots shouted as he pressed his shoulder against a building stone.
“Don’t you bloody dare!” I shouted, but before the words were out of my mouth, the huge block of stone tumbled over the edge of the wall and reduced the trappie to a black stain on the dirt.
I shook my head and grumbled to myself. It would have been a simple job for them to climb down the stairs and finish it with a bolt to the face. But of course, they chose the path that sent them back to their dice games the quickest, leaving us laborers to clean up their mess, haul what was left of the stone block up the wall, and still complete our quota for the day. I shook my head again and descended to the worksite.
I could almost hear Charl’s back muscles straining as he hefted the slab of wood against the frame of the wall. I felt bad making him lift it alone, but with Nelson gone, we were understaffed and short on time.
“Ready?” I mumbled through a mouthful of nails.
“Get it done,” he grunted.
Placing a nail against the wood, I hammered it down with my mallet, before spitting another into my hand and continuing down the length of the slab. I reached the end where the wood gave way to air and the mallet flew from my hands.
“Careful, idjit! Break that mallet an’ I’ll break your face,” Gaz yelled.
I flashed him a forced smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Gaz. Won’t happen again.”
He stomped over and thrust his finger into my chest. “You think I’m joking around? I’ll wipe that damn smile right from your face if you’re not careful!”
I bit my tongue and he poked me again.
“What’s that face, Jo? Got something you want to say?”
My fists balled at my side and I shoved them in my pockets. I ground my teeth and imagined what I would do to Gaz if I didn’t need my job.
“Damn it!” One of the boys cried out, his curse punctuated by the snapping of a cheap mallet.
Gaz rushed away like a monster after blood and I shook my head. Eager for the day to be over, I resumed hammering with a new ferocity and craving for my after-work drink.
The shouts of vendors assaulted my workmates and me as we passed through the marketplace to my tavern. The smells of cooking meat and spices made our mouths water, but between good food and hard liquor, a hard working laborer would always choose the latter.
I pushed open the door to my tavern and took a deep breath, filling my nostrils with the comforting aroma of old alcohol. She wasn’t pretty; it was a homemade bar in the bottom room of my small house, stocked with an old family recipe. But what it lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in character. It was a place where we could all enjoy a drink and pretend that the outside world didn’t exist.
I walked behind the bar and poured myself a mug of rotgut. I said a silent prayer for Nelson, gulped it down, poured myself another, and sipped at the clear liquid. Part of me wanted to make a speech for our lost workmate, say something nice and toast to his memory, but the others didn’t need any reminder of their losses.
Charl tossed his sack of copper onto the bar and I passed him a bottle and a clay mug to help himself. His pay never covered what he drank, but to Charl, drinking was as necessary as air, so he paid what he could, and I pitched in the rest. He deserved at least that much. I was snapping up coppers and handing out mugs when the door opened and Whisper strode towards the bar.
Whisper was as close to a living god as anybody in Ellsworth had ever met. During the malificia purge, a squad of foray guards had entered the slums to claim the bounty on his head. The guards’ corpses were found the next morning seated at the Minister of Defense’s breakfast table. The legendary assassin had grown into an old man, but even now, he was a force of nature. The fact that he was the last surviving magic user in the city was a testament to that.
Before I could avert my gaze, our eyes locked. I ground my teeth, feeling like a cornered rabbit. No matter how many nights he spent in my bar, it was a feeling that didn’t go away.
“Rotgut?” I asked in a wavering voice.
“Thank you,” he said. His gentle voice was all the more threatening coming from the thin man, like rotgut disguised as water.
He let himself behind the bar and selected a bottle from the wall, before taking his customary seat in the far corner of the room. I didn’t stop him or demand payment. Hell, the entire bar acted like if he didn’t exist – a comfortable fiction for the lot of us.
Brash kicked in the door and lumbered over to the bar with his sack of baked good slung over his back.
“Oi, ugly! Pour me a mug,” he shouted.
“Oi, stupid! Give me the goods,” I retorted.
We clapped hands over the bar and broke into laughter. Brash was a baker, and we had an understanding of sorts. He kept me and my family fed, and I kept him drunk.
I handed him a mug and removed the first baguette from the sack. I almost broke my teeth on it.
“Damn it, Brash! How old is this stuff? I could replace my naughty bat with this!” I shouted, slamming the bread down on the bar.
Brash shrugged and quaffed his mug.
“Some’s from today, some’s from last week. You know how it is, Jo. I just take what I can get me mitts on when the boss ain’t watching.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Oi, Charl! Watch the bar for me while I check on my little one.”
I topped up my mug and slung the bread sack over my back, then made my way up the narrow, spiral staircase that led to my living quarters. My son was asleep in the bed that we shared, and my old man was asleep in his chair. The same chair that he had been confined to since his back gave way five years earlier. Stepping over the slack rope of the old man’s lasso, I kissed my son on the forehead and upended the bread on the floor. I grabbed one of the softer loaves and tossed it into the old man’s lap. He opened his jaundiced eyes and reached blindly for the mug that I pushed into his hand.
“‘Bout time you got back. We went to bed hungry again,” he growled, breaking off chunks of his bread and dipping them in his rotgut.
“I was working so that we could all eat,” I snapped.
“Don’t you give me lip. I worked myself broken so you didn’t starve.”
“Whatever you say, old man.” I bit off a chunk of bread. “How was my little one today?”
The old man smiled. “My boy was an angel. Made up stories all day for his poor old gramps, he did.”
I stared down at my son and grinned. Despite the hardships of his life, Leon had that effect on people. He had been delivered into this world in the arms of death, and death had hovered over him for the first few years of his life. Once herbalist Seifer had taken all my metal, he told me there was nothing he could do, that my son was ‘touched by the gods.’ He mentioned how a dog breeder drowns touched puppies to spare them a life of pain. Well, let’s just say that I didn’t spare that bastard a life of pain.
A shout echoed from downstairs and I grabbed my naughty bat from under my bed.
“Mind my boy,” I called over my shoulder as I took the steps three at a time.
Downstairs, I found my regulars standing with their backs to the bar, ready to face off against Rat and his gang of seven. At only sixteen, Rat towered over most laborers, but he was still just a boy aching to prove that he wasn’t afraid of the world.
Brash stood behind the bar, holding a bloody rag to his nose.
“What’s this?” I growled, smacking my club against my hand.
“Bloody scumbags came in demanding free grog, and Brash told them what they could do with their demands. Things got complicated.” Charl said.
I sighed. “Look, fellas, you can either put dough in my pocket or bread in my pantry, but no one drinks for free.”
“He does,” Rat, said, pointing at Whisper.
I glanced at the assassin, but he seemed to be lost in thought, staring at his unopened bottle.
“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “I pay for Whisper’s drinks out of pocket and in return, he hasn’t killed anyone in my bar.”
Rat grinned. “Sounds fairs to me. What ‘bout you, lads?” Rat asked.
His gang cheered.
“It’s settled then. You serve us drink, and we don’t kill anyone either.”
I snorted. Well aware of Rat’s eyes on me, I strode behind the bar and poured myself a mug.
“I have a better idea,” I said. I gulped my drink and breathed the burn through my nose. “How ‘bout the lot of ya make like trees and piss off!”
The room erupted into violence. Laborers who pounded wood with mallets by day, pounded skulls with their fists, while I strode through the melee, lashing with my naughty bat like a city guard.
One of Rat’s boys leaped at me, swinging heavy blows, and I put him down. Rat’s fat body crashed into mine and I slammed face first into the bar. I tried to find my feet, but he caught a handful of my short hair with one hand, and the naughty bat was ripped from my grasp. Fists rained down on the back of my head in flashes of white light. Doing my best to protect myself with one arm, I scoured the bar for a weapon. My hand closed around something solid and I swung.
I propped myself against the bar and looked around the room. Rat lay face down on the floor with his gang, his dark hair a crimson mess. I burst into laughter. The baguette in my hand looked as if it had been smeared with berry preserves.
I grabbed the bloody rag from where Brash had dropped it and stuffed the end into my bleeding nose.
“Gonna hang this beauty on the wall,” I said, holding the baguette like a trophy.
“And here you were, complaining that the bread was too hard,” Brash grunted as he and Charl dragged the unconscious Rat towards the door.
“Don’t put’em out there. The streets will skin ‘em alive in the state their in.”
“It’s what they deserve,” Charl said, his top lip rising into a snarl. “Back when I was in the foray guards we used recruits like these as monster bait until they learned their manners.”
“And how many of those recruits do you see in your nightmares?” I asked.
Charl was silent.
“They’re just stupid kids. Chuck’em over in the corner and forget about’em. They won’t make any more trouble tonight.”
They hauled the unconscious boys to the corner by the door, and Charl hurried back to me with a smile on his face.
“Grab Senna for me, would you?” he asked.
I grinned and felt under the bar for his fiddle. I passed it to him, and after a quick tuning, his voice fell into the artful cadence of a performer. He composed a ballad of our little tumble, dedicating a passage to all present, and we sang along until the fire in the hearth burned down to a faded red eye.
I was struggling to keep my eyes open when I shouted out last call. Rat’s gang had slunk out the door over an hour ago and Charl was grumbling to Bibi and Brash.
“Guardsh ‘ave it eashy theshe daysh. Claiming to defend the shity. Bah!” he slurred, waving his empty bottle through the air.
Bibi gave a non-committal grunt and tried to siphon the last drops from her mug. She was little more than a wrinkle of translucent skin stretched over sharp bones, but somehow, she always managed to make last call. Being half blind, I don’t know how she made her way to my bar each evening, but I didn’t trust her stumbling home alone at night.
“All they do ish play dishe. Bet they ain’t never sheen a monster up closhe. Never had to charge one wish…” he paused and poked Bibi in the shoulder. “Oi! Lishten to me. Lishten to me…” He laid his head on the bar and broke into choking sobs, his drunken fingers tripping over Senna’s strings.
I hated seeing him like that, but memories of the past reduced him to that state each and every night.
“Drink this and go to sleep, big guy,” I said, filling his mug with enough rotgut to send him to a place where nightmares couldn’t reach him.
I scooped Bibi into my arms like a child. She struggled for a few seconds before giving up and slumping against my chest. I could feel little more than bones beneath her thick shawl and wool skirt.
“I’m taking Bibi home. Mind the bar for me, Brash?”
“No problem, Jo.”
Slinging my naughty bat over my shoulder, I made my way into the night.
When I returned home, Whisper was sitting at the bar beside the unconscious Charl. For the first time ever, I was thankful for Charl’s snoring because it let me know that he was still alive.
“Where’s Brash?” I asked.
“I told him I would guard your bar and that he could return home. A young man like that needs his sleep.”
I nodded and forced a smile. “Thought you would’ve gone home already yourself,” I said. I tightened my grip on my naughty bat although I knew it would be of little use. If Whisper wanted me dead, I was dead and that was that.
“I was impressed by how you handled those thugs earlier. Peace born of a handshake lasts longer than that born of a punch. It is only a shame that your extended hand was refused.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked behind the bar and poured myself a nightcap. I offered the bottle to Whisper, but he waved it away.
“I want your help, Jo.”
I swallowed and forced a smile. “What can I do for ya?”
“Armed with the right words, a person in power can accomplish what an army of assassins cannot. I would like you to be that person in power.”
My jaw dropped open and I broke into laughter. Then I remembered who I was speaking to and wiped the smile from my face.
“And how would I do that?”
“I will teach you.”
I took another swig of rotgut. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly the finest liquor on the shelf. I can’t even read.”
Whisper shook his head. “All children should learn to read, but we are what we choose to be. Let the aristocrats decide for you and you have already lost. They want slaves who can lift heavy objects, not equals who can think and reason.”
His pity stung me more than any insult.
“What if I don’t wanna’ learn?” I snapped.
Whisper shrugged. “The choice is yours, but I’m sure that I can find a way to motivate you.” The elderly assassin passed by me and I shivered despite my anger. Once he had left my bar, I locked the door, for whatever good it would do, placed his unopened bottle back on the shelf for the next night, and joined my son in the warm embrace of our bed.
Motivation came the next evening when I returned home from work.
I heard the old man’s muffled yells from within the bar and all but ripped the door from its hinges. He was sprawled on the ground, his thin, crippled legs useless as he crawled towards me.
It’s Leon. He won’t wake up!”
I raced up the stairs and found my son in our bed. I shook him, but he didn’t stir. His shallow breaths were the only hint that he was still alive. I brushed aside his blond hair and kissed his forehead.
“You’re going to be alright, Leon,” I said. To myself, I whispered, “You have to be.”
Scooping him into my arms, I ran to Ellsworth’s only herbalist, trusting in Charl to take care of the bar and my old man.
The store was closed for the evening, and the door locked, but I pounded on it until Herbalist Seifer opened it a crack.
“I’m closed and about to go home,” he growled through the gap.
“Something’s wrong with my son. He won’t wake up!”
Seifer snorted. “I told you that you should have drowned him as a babe. The child is nothing if not infirm.”
I gritted my teeth and pushed down the urge to rip the man’s throat out with my teeth. “I don’t care, just fix him,” I growled.
“Can you pay?”
“Can you reciprocate me for my services with, steel, iron, bronze or a great deal of copper?”
“No,” I spluttered. “Not right now, but I will. I don’t care what it costs.”
He shut the door and I waited for him to undo the deadlock. After several moments, I kicked it.
“Hurry up!” I shouted.
“If you can’t pay. I can’t heal,” came his reply. “I don’t frequent that hole you call a bar and expect free alcohol on the promise of payment, and thus I do not heal for promises.”
“I’ll kill you!” I shouted. I kicked the door again and felt the slab of wood budge in its frame. I was lining up another kick when the city guards rounded the corner and I took off home.
“I can’t believe that bastard!” I shouted, shouldering open the door to my tavern.
“Eyes on your drinks,” Charl snapped, and everyone’s gazes slipped away from me. “What’s happened now?” he asked.
I laid my son’s sleeping form on the bar and stroked the hair back from his eyes. My blood boiled and I punched the bar.
“Fuck!” I shouted, punching it again.
Charl poured me a drink, grabbed my arm, and forced the mug into my hand. “Drink this before you break something. You’re no use to Leon if you lose control, Jo.”
I necked it in a single gulp, savoring the burn that swept away my stress as it wafted from my mouth.
“Good,” Charl soothed. “Now tell me what happened.”
“Seifer won’t even look at Leon unless I can pay him on the spot. And he won’t hear nothin ‘bout a loan.”
“How much is he asking for?” Charl asked, refilling my mug.
“Steel,” I said.
“That’s pathetic!” Charl snarled. “I remember back before the purge when there was a malificia who could heal with her hands. Cup of flour here and there, and she would heal you up without a worry. Now that Seifer has the market cornered, the greedy thinks he’s some kind of god, holding our lives in one hand and our purses in the other. Well, I’ll convince him to help if I have to do it at the point of a knife!”
The room cheered their accent, and more than one person rose to their feet.
I banged my mug on the bar. “Thanks, Charl, but gettin’ yourselves put in a chain-gang to build outside the wall until monsters take ya ain’t gonna help no one.” I slammed the mug again and the clay shattered. “How the hell can someone ignore a sick child like that!”
“I’ve seen once good men, stripped of everything that made them human, commit unspeakable acts simply to keep themselves alive for one more day. I’ve seen them dump the putrid bodies of onetime friends in our rivers, and then look away while children choke on the corrupted water. I have watched this city die ever since I was an apprentice, leaking the corpses of the poor like blood while the wealthy rest atop its carcass like proud hunters.”
I glared at Whisper. “I don’t have time for poetry!” A thought struck me and desperate hope chased away my anger. I grasped Whisper by the shirt. “You work with poisons! You must know something ‘bout cures!”
Whisper jabbed my shoulder with a finger, and my arm went flaccid. He shrugged away my feeble grip and turned toward the stairs.
“Bring your son up to your room,” he ordered.
I followed the elderly assassin and laid my son on our shared bed. My old man was passed out in his chair, no doubt exhausted after dragging himself down to the front door. Whisper held his head to Leon’s chest and looked inside his nose, examining my son while I paced the room like an imprisoned animal.
Finally, he said, “Your son will be fine. It’s rare, but sometimes a papillon endormi, a sleeping butterfly, gets trapped on a north blowing wind and floats into the city from the Forest of Silence. He just needs some thyme, rugroot, and bellroot to open his sinuses and flush the poison from his system. You should be able to get everything you need from the herbalist.”
I bent my neck to the left until it popped, then repeated the process on the other side, trying in vain to release the buildup of pressure in my shoulders. “I don’t have the metal to pay for them,” I said. “And the herbalist won’t sell to me.”
“I know,” he replied, locking his gaze with mine.
I remember thinking that an assassin’s eyes shouldn’t be warm and brown. They should be black, like the dead place in his chest where his heart once was.
“Thyme, rugroot, bellroot. Thyme, rugroot, bellroot.” I repeated the words like a mantra as I entered the alleyway behind Seifer’s store. The sun had set, but that did little to calm my nerves. Using the bread sack to cover the window, I elbowed through the glass and fled deeper into the alley. I was sure that at any second a squad of guards would arrest me and my son would be doomed. When no one appeared, I breathed a prayer to whatever god happened to be watching over me, and crawled through the small window, careful to avoid the shattered glass.
I crept through the dark store to where the shadows of herb jars were shelved along the far wall. I could make out the labels on their faces, but the foreign squiggles meant nothing to me. I hadn’t even thought of not being able to read the names. I bit down on my fist hard enough to draw blood in an effort to barricade my scream within my throat. Hot, frustrated tears sprung from my eyes. I was an idiot. My son was going to die because I was an idiot. Whisper was right; all children should learn how to read. Swallowing my rage, I breathed another prayer and shoved as many jars as I could into my bread bag.
When I returned home with the sack of stolen herbs slung over my back, Leon was walking down the stairs, taking them one at a time with slow, deliberate care. He saw me, squealed, and run back up the stairs. He knew he wasn’t allowed to leave his room without an adult.
I dropped the sack at the open door and sprinted after him just in time for the door to slam in my face.
“Sowy, sowy, sowy,” came his voice from the other side.
“It’s ok. You’re not in trouble, buddy. Just open the door,” I called back, my heart hammering in my chest.
The door creaked open and Leon stood in the doorway, chewing on his fingertips. I crushed him against my chest and swung him side to side while he squealed.
“You’re ok,” I repeated over and over.
I set him down on the floor and he collapsed his legs beneath his body, refusing to stand. I kissed his cheek and he giggled.
“As it would appear, I had the correct herbs on my person,” Whisper said from the corner of the room where he was leaning against the wall.
“Then why make me risk the chain-gang?” I asked, deliberately calm while my gratitude warred with my anger.
“To teach you the importance of reading,” Whisper said.
I gritted my teeth. My hands clenched and released by my side as I struggled to remain polite to the legendary assassin.
“Thank you for healing my son. You are right. Reading is very important. I will find myself a teacher. Please help yourself to my bar,” I stated.
Whisper sighed as if I was a slow student, and I restrained myself from throttling him while he passed me and walked down the stairs.
For the following week, I worked on the wall by day, and while Charl ran my bar during the night, I roamed the city in search of a teacher. One week later, I sat beside Whisper at my bar.
“Do you now understand why you have never learned to read?” Whisper asked.
“I’ve never learned to read because I’m poor, and I’m poor because I can’t read,” I replied.
“But, let’s say I did want to learn, where do I find the time?” I asked.
“Make time,” Whisper replied.
“How? I already work two jobs.”
Whisper shrugged. “Get up earlier. Stay up later. Charl has proven quite capable of operating your bar, so hire him. You may lose some income for the time being, but I’m confident that Brash will continue to keep your family fed. Finally, stop working for the city. The menial job you perform pays little and was designed to keep you tired and stupid so that you don’t aspire to goals. Do whatever you need to do, Jo… or would you rather remain an idiot all your life?”
I slapped the bar. “Of course I don’t! I want a better life, for me and my son.” I stared down at my scarred fist. “For everyone.”
Whisper retrieved a tome from within his shirt and laid it open on the bar. The paper was blank. He pressed a thin stick into the palm of my hand.
“This is a lead pencil; you use the sharp end to write.”
I closed my fist around the pencil and held it like a hammer. I scraped it along the page and the paper ripped.
“Sorry!” I blurted. I suddenly felt like a kid again, unable to get even the smallest job right.
He waved the apology away and took the pencil from me.
“I prefer to handle it like this,” he said, pinching it between his thumb and index finger. He flipped the page and marked ten large letters down its side.
“Get a feel for it and hold it however is comfortable, then copy the letters I have written. When the sheet is filled, I will give you new letters on the next,” he said, pressing the pencil into my hand again.
I stared at that book until the foreign scribbles blurred through my watery eyes. Long after even Charl had made his bed behind the bar, I gazed at the stairs and thought of my own soft bed, where little Leon would be snuggled in our blankets. It would have been nice if there weren’t so many steps between us. I let my head loll forward for a second, to relieve the tension in my neck, and before I could stop myself I was asleep at the bar.
I woke up the next morning to the sun shining through the window and stood up so quickly that my stool crashed to the ground. I was late for work. I looked from the door to the bar, where my night’s progress was displayed in the open tome, and smiled. Whereas I could not even hold a pencil at the beginning of the night, I had ended the night by signing my own name at the bottom of the page. It had only taken one night, and I was no longer bound by the laborer’s X.
From that day forth, I dove into the deep end of learning. Whisper tutored both Leon and me during the day, and while my calloused hands, so used to wielding a mallet, butchered the detailed movements that writing called for, Leon took to letters like a trappie takes to earth. He mastered the alphabet in a matter of days while I was still stuck trying to figure out the difference between the letters C and K.
At times, I would lose my calm and slam the pencil down on the bar. When this happened, Leon would wrap his arms around my waist, pinning me to my chair with his frail body, while Whisper spoke to me simply, and without anger, reminding me why I chose to suffer. They never failed to motivate me to take up my pencil again.
Once night would fall, the boys would filter through the front door and I would send Leon to bed with the promise of joining him soon. Charl would pour me a mug of rotgut, we would toast, and I would dive back into my study.
“You read too slow!” Leon pouted, trying to turn the page that I was halfway through.
“Read another book if I’m reading mine too slowly,” I said.
He gazed up at me with his blue cocker eyes. “But I want to read this one,” he whined.
“You have a debate in a week.”
I gasped and threw a protective arm around Leon. I hadn’t even heard Whisper open the door.
“I have a what?” I demanded, ruffling my son’s hair, pretending that I had only meant to hug him.
“Use the dictionary if you do not know the word.”
“I know what debate means, but what do you mean that I have one?”
“The Minister of the People was found hanging from his balcony this morning.”
“And…?” I asked. Whisper never said anything without a purpose.
“A replacement will have to be found, and as such, I have entered you into the election.”
I frowned. “Do I get a say in this?”
He gazed at me flat and level. “No.”
“Fine…” I sighed. “What do I have to do?”
“Just keep studying, I have some rendezvous.”
Knowing that I wouldn’t get any more information until Whisper decided to share it, I poured myself a mug of rotgut and chose a book at random from the mountain of tomes that smothered my bar.
“What’s this word, Leon?” I asked, pointing at a long scribble atop the page.
“Sound it out like Master Whisper says,” he said
“Sound it out with me?”
“Ok.” He leaned onto the bar and blocked the page with the back of his head.
The front door crashed open and three hooded men charged into the room.
“Go to grandpa and lock the door!” I shouted at Leon. He didn’t move, so I shoved him in the direction of the stairs and he fell from the stool, striking the ground hard. Tears welled in his eyes and I wanted to go to him, to explain the situation in slow, calm words that he could understand, but it was too late.
Footsteps approached and I swung my mug. It shattered to pieces, scattering over the prone body of my attacker. A club struck my skull and I fell against the bar. Blood and stars blocked my view, but I grasped a stool and heard a man grunt as I swung it wildly through the air. The club struck me again and a sack was thrown over my head. I tried to shout for Leon to run, but a rope was pulled tight around my throat, cutting off my breath and turning my cry into a muffled gasp. My arms were yanked behind me and more rope bound my wrists. My attackers kicked my legs out from under me and my ankles were bound, too. I thrashed against my bonds, but every movement tightened the rope around my neck and darkness claimed me.
When I came to, Leon was shoving me with all the strength that his little arms could muster. As I wrapped him in my arms and kissed his forehead, I realized that my bonds were gone.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
I could make out the shadow of his head bobbing in the dark room and sighed in relief.
“Tell me who you work for,” came Whisper’s soft voice from the far end of the room.
“Stay here,” I told Leon. I felt through the shadows for a weapon and settled on a chair. It would have been more practical to break the leg off of the table it was seated under, but that would have been too noisy.
Following Whisper’s voice, I found a door. I cracked it open and peered through the gap. Rat was being held against the wall by Whisper.
“Not tellin you nothin,” Rat said, spitting a mouthful of blood at Whisper’s feet.
“Of course you will.” Whisper lowered his dagger to Rat’s left eye, hovering the tip above his dark iris. “But it will be easier on you to simply tell me now, and less work for me if I do not have to sift the truth from your screams.”
I burst through the door with the chair held in front of me.
“Ah, you have awoken then,” Whisper said.
I remember thinking how stupid I had been to have trusted such a monster. I charged and swung the chair at his head, but he flowed aside.
“Sit down and let me explain,” he ordered.
I swung again, but this time he released Rat and ripped the chair from my grasp with a strength that belied his elderly body. Rat picked himself up from the ground and threw a wide punch, but Whisper caught the boy’s wrist. He twisted and pulled the arm straight, then slammed his elbow down on the locked limb. The snap echoed through the room and Rat screamed as bone jutted free of his skin. I charged forward and Whisper reached into his pocket. He brought forth a fistful of powder and threw it into my face, and I fell to the ground clutching at my stinging eyes.
“I’ll ask again, Rat,” Whisper said. “Who hired you to kill Jo?”
I flinched at his tone. What an idiot I was. I had just attacked my savior.
“Some rich bitch,” Rat sobbed.
“Who’s this rich bitch?!” I screamed, my hands still scratching at my eyes.
“I don’t know. I never met her. She paid us through some guy named Keit.”
Another bone cracked, followed by another scream.
“But I had one of my boys follow her! So I know where she lives! I’ll show you the way!” Rat panted.
“Yes,” Whisper said. “You will.”
A loud thud echoed through the building and I flinched as cold water was splashed over my eyes. I opened them but wished I hadn’t. Rat’s broken body was passed out in the middle of the room with white bone protruding from both of his arms. The rise and fall of his chest were the only testaments to his continued living.
“You saved me?”
“Of course I did, you idiot. Did you think I would spend six months teaching you to read, just to kill you? Use your brain.”
I forced myself to look down at Rat’s form. “What will you do with him?”
“Use him to find his employer then dispose of him.”
“He’s still a kid,” I said.
Whisper barked an ugly laugh. “After kidnapping you and your son, he burned your bar to ashes with your crippled father still inside.”
I bit my fist. The old man was dead. I wasn’t sad, but something inside me felt like it was missing; a part of me that I would never get back.
I took a deep breath. “He’s still just a kid,” I said. “After what you’ve done to him, I don’t think he’ll ever attack anyone ever again.”
“That ‘kid’ was paid to kill you. Think, Jo. Why are you and your son still alive, in an abandoned factory in the middle of the slums, when he has already accepted a handful of bronze to kill you?”
I opened my mouth, but Whisper cut me off.
“I will give you a clue, Jo. It wasn’t to shake your hand and thank you for busting his melon a few months back.”
I clenched my fists by my side.
“I understand how you feel, Jo, but consider his crimes. How would the Minister of Law deal with him?”
I met his eyes. “Put the monsters with the monsters,” I quoted. “He would be chained outside the wall to lay foundation until the monsters took him.”
He escorted Leon and me to our home later that evening, but all we found was a blackened shell surrounded by our friends. Charl caught sight of me and rushed through the crowd, throwing his arms around my waist. He lifted me into the air. My back cracked and he dropped me.
“Good to see you too, Charl,” I gasped.
“Just glad you’re alright,” he choked out, wiping at his face with his dirty sleeve.
Brash came over to shake my hand.
“Should’a known that even death would reject your ugly mug,” he said.
I barked a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder.
“If there’s anythin’ I can do for you, Jo, say the word.”
I felt a tug on my shirt and looked down to find Leon, his eyes locked to the charred skeleton of the only home he had ever known.
“Where’s grandpa?” he asked.
I lifted Leon into my arms and opened my mouth to lie, but my chest clenched. I turned my head upwards and inhaled, trying to deny my stinging tears. I wanted to be strong for my son. He wrapped his arms around my neck, and like a dam that cracks and then gives way, I cried. Not for the old man who had never been my father, but for the man who would no longer be Leon’s grandfather.
After the old man’s funeral, Whisper appeared beside me. I didn’t jump this time, whether I was in shock or just becoming accustomed to his sudden appearances is anybody’s guess.
“I want you and Leon to reside in one of my safe houses for the foreseeable future,” he said.
I shifted my feet. Whisper had saved our lives and proven himself to be on my side time and time again, but being around him still made my skin crawl.
“Thank you for the offer, but I would rather stay with a friend,” I said, forcing my shaking voice to be firm.
“It is your choice, but until I have dealt with your enemies, you are going to be a danger to anyone you are around.”
My eyes widened and I tightened my grip on Leon.
“Enemies…” I tested the word, rolling it over my tongue. I’d always had people that I didn’t like, bosses I detested. But I’d never had any enemies before Whisper offered to teach me to read. I gazed out at the remains of my home and shuddered.
Leon fell asleep in my arms as Whisper escorted us deep into the city’s slums, down streets that even a malificia wouldn’t stroll alone. When he stopped at the door of a decrepit house, I moved to follow, but he raised a hand and I stopped short.
“I must first deactivate the traps.” He disappeared into the house and returned two minutes later. “It is now safe,” he said, waving me in.
I shuddered as I passed through the doorway. Despite his assurances, the assassin’s lair still held an air of malice. The room I entered was as run-down as the street outside, with broken furniture and filth littering the ground.
“Do you really live here?” I asked.
“That is exactly what most people ask themselves if they manage to find my safe house,” he replied.
He used a knife to pry open a trapdoor set in the floor, revealing a spiral staircase.
“And that is exactly why it has remained a safe house for so many years.”
Careful to keep my balance as I carried Leon, I followed Whisper down the tiny steps until we came to a large chamber that was something of a mélange between an herbarium and an armory. The air was surprisingly fresh.
“There is a bed in the corner that you and young Leon may utilize. I must leave.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. “Have you got anything to drink?”
“I will bring fresh food and water with me when I return. Until then, assume that everything consumable is poisonous,” he called over his shoulder.
“Could you bring back something a bit stronger?”
Whisper stopped short and turned to me. “Why do you drink so much?” he asked.
I squinted, sensing a trap. “Because it helps me relax after a hard day,” I hazarded. Whisper nodded. “And will you let your son drink himself stupid every night when he starts having hard days?”
“Of course not!” I said, shocked.
Whisper gazed at me flat and level and I groaned.
“I give my son rules to protect him. I’m an adult; I know and accept the risks of dri…” I trailed off as Whisper raised an eyebrow. “Which, of course, is exactly what Leon will say when he’s old enough.”
Whisper started up the stairs without a word, and I tucked Leon into his new bed. He slept soundly, as he always did, but I lay restless beside him. Like me, Leon was born in the slums and had been raised without an education. Instead of questioning the inequality of his life, would he drown his problems in alcohol? Like his parents before him, and my parents before me? I had tried to better myself and the aristocrats of this city had tried to hammer me down like a stubborn nail. Staring into the darkness, I contemplated the choices I had always made without a single thought.
“It is time.”
I opened my eyes to find Whisper standing over the bed and had to stifle a scream. I untangled my limbs from Leon’s, but he gripped my arm tighter and groaned. I snuggled close to him for a moment, kissed his forehead, and pulled myself free.
“Are you sure you’ll be ok with Leon? Alone?” I asked.
Whisper nodded, and a faint smile reached his lips. “I always wanted a son. Today will be a new experience for me, but one I will cherish.”
I tried not to appear shocked at Whisper’s revealing slip, but it must have shown on my face. His smile disappeared and he thrust a dagger toward me.
“Take this and go,” he snapped.
I waved my hand at the blade. “Thanks, but I won’t waste time pretending to know how to handle a knife.”
Whisper nodded. “I thought you might say that.” He wandered toward a wardrobe set against the opposite side of the room and returned with a mallet, much like the one I had used while working on the wall.
“It’s not as effective as a good dagger, but I suppose your work has taught you how to swing a heavy object, at the very least.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
Hooking the mallet through my belt, I hurried from Whisper’s safe house and the trapdoor slammed behind me. I looked back, and although I knew exactly where the entrance was, I couldn’t differentiate it from the rest of the floor.
Only a week ago, the slums had seemed fraught with danger, but since word had gone out that I was under Whisper’s protection, the shadows themselves seemed to flee from me as I jogged towards the city center.
The city guards parted the crowd that had massed by the dais as I made my way towards them. These were the forgotten citizens of Ellsworth, the ones too weak to labor and too poor to do anything else. The sight of their bones and joints protruding from their filthy skin only strengthened my resolve. I would not let Leon become one of them.
I climbed the stairs to the stage and found the rich bitch sitting in a padded, maroon chair, surveying the crowd from her podium like a goddess overseeing slaves. I studied her as I took my place at the opposite end of the platform. We were about the same age, but her years had ridden her far more graciously than mine had. Where the passage of time had left scars on my face, it had brushed by her, leaving only slight crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.
“I was surprised to hear that a plebeian wished to take place in an election,” she said. “What good fortune for you that they allow just anyone to run for Minister of the People.”
I ignored her taunts. She was the rich bitch that Rat had betrayed in his last moments of life. The same rich bitch that had paid to have my small family murdered to further her career. My instincts cried to attack, but I knew that I could extract far more revenge by winning the election. Once I came into power, I could tear down this little world she had built for herself where she could get away with murder.
I stared down at crowd and wave of dread washed over me. I had practiced giving speeches before, but this crowd was so much bigger than the motley group that had filtered into my bar.
“I must commend your bravery, though. When I heard about the fire, and your father, I feared you might renounce your claim to our little rivalry.” She smiled, and I balled my fists at my side, digging my nails into the meat of my palm. I hated the aristocrats. They all spoke in polite phrases, filed down to exquisite edges that stabbed discreetly, where an open ‘fuck you’ would suffice.
Anger swept away my fear and I placed my hand over my heart like I had practiced with Whisper. The crowd quieted and I began the battle of words.
“I grew up shoveling shit like the rest of you who weren’t lucky enough to be pulled out from between a rich pair of legs,” I said.
The rich bitch huffed and puffed and I pushed on:
“But if you vote me Minister of the People, I’ll do right by you. Every man will be treated as my own brother, every woman as my own sister, and every child as my own young.” I forced out the speech. The feelings were mine, but the words were Whisper’s. They left my mouth feeling like the first time I had snuck a sip of rotgut when I was a child.
The crowd was looking differently at me now. They were no longer just standing there, waiting for the election to be over so that they could return to their lives. I could see the sparks of extinguished hope flickering to life behind the mirrors of their dull eyes. My knees shook and I stuttered. I felt like a fraud as I gazed out at these people. Whisper could have chosen any one of them instead of me, and I would have been standing amongst them now, looking up into a stranger’s face as they promised me change. I owed it to each and every one of them to give them the same chance.
“Jo!” Brash shouted, pushing his way through the crowd.
“Arrest him,” the rich bitch ordered, stabbing her finger in Brash’s direction without leaving her chair.
Two guards stomped away from their posts and I jumped down from the platform, landing behind them. I placed a hand on either of their shoulders and they turned.
“What!” One snarled.
His older partner elbowed him in his leather jerkin.
“Show respect, Jaik. Might be your new boss come the new moon,” he growled.
I took in the puckered scar that covered the elder guard’s face and nodded my thanks. I would remember him when I became the Minister of the People.
“I need to hear what he has to say,” I said, stepping between them.
The rich bitch jumped from her chair and stomped to the edge of the podium, dangerously close to the common man. She was speaking, but her words were swallowed by the mutterings of the crowd, enflaming her anger and bringing a smile to my face.
The crowd split down the middle, creating a path for me to my friend.
“What is it, Brash?” I asked
“It’s Charl,” Brash huffed. “New wall. Trouble.”
My smile fled.
“The fact that you are willing to abandon your post, in the middle of your own speech no less, shows that you are uncommitted to serving the people of Ellsworth,” the rich bitch shrieked. She was looking down at me like a feral animal, her brows furrowed with rage.
“I don’t have time to waste talking about how I plan to help people when I’m too busy actually helping them,” I shouted.
I ran to the new wall, and the crowd ran with me.
Expanding the wall took time, a lot of time, but it seemed to me that zero progress had been made since I had quit over half a year ago. My blood chilled when I saw the squad of wall guards laughing and cheering from atop the wall. I ran up the narrow staircase and my blood boiled. Charl was standing shirtless in the worksite below, waving his shirt in one hand and a sword in the other.
The guards howled in excitement as the trappie rose from the earth, stones and soil falling down its armored hide like miniature avalanches. The horned monster charged and Charl yanked his shirt aside. He stabbed, but his sword bounced off of the trappie’s thick hide.
I grabbed the nearest guard by his collar, pulling him to face me. “What do you think you’re doing? Shoot that damn thing!”
He shoved me away and fixed me with an unfocused glare. His breath smelled like liquor.
“He offered to show us how a real guard would kill a monster,” he slurred. “To be fair, we gave me a sword.”
I started down the stairway, disgust chasing away my fatigue. I could hear the guards cheering above me, but the brick walls of the stairway blocked Charl from my view.
When I reached the ground level on the wild side of the wall, Charl was still waving his shirt, but his sword was firmly lodged in the folds of the trappie’s neck scales. I started toward Charl, and the trappie’s head snapped to my direction, stopping me short.
“Back to me, you ugly bugger!” Charl shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. The trappie charged, but again Charl twisted out of the way. “Get out of here, Jo,” he said.
I took out my mallet and sprinted to his side. “Tell me what I can do to help,” I gasped.
“You can get out of here,” he repeated.
Our conversation was cut short as the trappie charged past again. I jumped too far back and fell on my ass, but quickly scrambled to my feet.
“Get up and stand behind me,” Charl snapped. He waved his shirt with renewed vigor, never taking his eyes off of the trappie. “Don’t speak, and move only when you have to. Trappies go after sound and movement.”
I did what he commanded, sticking as close to his broad back as I could without pushing him over. The trappie flowed by so close that I could taste the rot on its breath and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was smelling the remains of Nelson.
“How can I help?” I repeated, swallowing my rising sickness.
“Use your mallet,” he whispered.
The trappie charged by and I brought the mallet down with all of my strength, but it bounced harmlessly off of its scaly body.
“Give me that!” Charl hissed, ripping the mallet from my hands. I was suddenly an apprentice laborer again, watching uselessly from behind and getting in the way every time I tried to help.
Charl took a deep breath, raising the mallet above his head. When the rot invaded my nostrils again, he exhaled and brought the mallet down, pounding the sword hilt-deep into the trappie’s flesh.
“Run!” Charl cried out.
Before I could question him, Charl flung me over his shoulder and sprinted towards the stairway. Behind us, the trappie had forsaken the hunt for movement and was lashing out wildly in its death throes.
Charl didn’t set me down until we were halfway up the stairs. He pulled his tattered shirt over his body, hiding his face with the hood, but not before I saw the sunken shadows around his eyes.
“You shouldn’t have come down there,” he snapped.
I sighed and started up the stairway. When Charl didn’t follow, I fixed him with a glare until his footsteps echoed behind me. We pushed our way past the dumbstruck guards and sat atop the wall with our legs dangling over the edge as the trappie bled out below.
“What were you doing?” I tried to keep the anger from my voice, but Charl deflated. The seconds ticked by in silence. I was about to ask again when he finally spoke.
“Can’t do it anymore, Jo. The instincts that kept me alive when I was out beyond the wall don’t just go away because I’m safe in a city now. Someone goes to shake my hand and those instincts scream at me to draw my sword before a claw scoops out my insides, but I don’t even have a sword anymore. They took that away when I left the foray guards, and the nightmares keep coming. Even passing out don’t help anymore. And what happened to your old man, it’s just too much. The monsters prey on us outside the wall while the humans prey on us inside it. Truthfully, I can’t even tell who the real monsters are anymore.”
“Give me time, Charl. I’m changing this city.”
He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I know you are, Jo,” he said. He was smiling in that bittersweet way one does when the only other option is tears. “But it’s too late for m-”
“It’s never too la-”
“Let me finish, damn it! The Ministry used me up and threw me away. To them, I was never anything more than a disposable sword, whose condition didn’t matter because a new sword is cheaper than a repair. Don’t make that same mistake, Jo.”
I took his hand in mine. “I won’t,” I said.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You know, I always thought I would get better and we would…” his voice broke and tears welled in his eyes. He stared down into his lap and wept, clutching at my hand.
“I’m sorry, Jo. I’m just so sorry.”
I stroked his back with my free hand. “You will get better. Just like this city.”
He turned to face me. “I’m so glad I got to see you like this, you really are going to change this city, but there won’t be a place for me in that new world.”
He drew close and I thought that he might kiss me. Then he released my hand and threw himself from the wall. I grabbed for him, grasping his hood with one hand and a post from the wall’s frame with the other. My shoulder jerked to a sudden stop and I screamed. His hood ripped. He fell.
Thin, dirty hands clamored to be the first to pull me up the wall, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Charl’s broken body, lying twisted and bloody a hundred feet below. Time stopped and my vision blurred. The grumpy old bastard was actually dead and the future that I saw for us was suddenly reduced to the ramblings of a couple of drunks.
Charl’s death solidified my victory, but I would have preferred a lengthy election with my friend by my side. Risking my own life for his had proven to the people that I wasn’t just another aristocrat, tossing copper at the poor so it looked like I was helping while I lined my own pocket with steel.
A week later, I moved into the home of the previous Minister of the People. My first action as the new Minister was to tear down the six-foot high steel gate that separated my sprawling property, and the mansion within, from the outside world. I had it melted it down to pay for houses to be built for the poor, and they would be ready before winter came, but a few wooden huts with smoking chimneys were already decorating my land, with people running to and fro like a small village. With roofs over their heads, food in the bellies, and a chance at education, these forgotten citizens would become the future of Ellsworth.
Whisper entered my office and closed the door behind him. He glanced around the room, scanning the shelves of books illuminated by the buzzing lanterns.
“I see you have discovered electricity?” he said, shaking my hand.
“When I first saw that the lanterns didn’t have any oil or wicks I thought it must have been magic,” I said.
He shook his head. “Just technology from the old world. Something that the rich take for granted and the poor know nothing about.”
“Another thing I plan to change.”
He smiled. “Congratulations on being instated,” he said, taking the seat across from me.
“Thank you, Whisper.”
“Everything is paying dividends now. Minister of the People today; tomorrow, who knows? The rules no longer apply to someone in your position, Jo. I think we both know where you are heading if you can maintain your rise.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Have you asked yourself what your goal is yet? Direct my knives into the right places, and you could be Prime Minister of Ellsworth in a few short years. I can begin with Jeezabul, the woman who burned down your bar. Just give the order.”
I rose from my desk and crossed the room to gaze at the mallet mounted on my wall. It was the same type of mallet I had used while working on the wall that defended my city. I now defended my city in a different capacity.
“I won’t have you kill anyone for me, Whisper,” I said.
“I understand, Jo. Don’t worry; we will keep your hands clean. I can make them look like accidents, just like poor old Edward, the man whose office you now occupy. Technically, I didn’t kill him, but I did provide him with enough rope to hang himself. Think of it as cutting the dead fruit from the branch so the tree can flourish.”
Up until then, I had tried to focus on the good that Whisper had done. He had saved my life and that of my son, but hearing him speak so casually of murdering the citizens of Ellsworth, the citizens of my city, clarified things. A murderer could only poison what I hoped to build. I gripped the mallet with my good hand and turned to face him. Whisper was on his feet wielding his dagger. I hadn’t even heard him move.
“You’ve put me in a position to change the world for the better, Whisper. The monsters will no longer be put with the monsters. Jeezabul will face justice like any other criminal…like Rat should have.” I took a step forward. “I’m going to create a city where all children can read.”
I whistled and guards filtered into the room, but they hesitated when they caught sight of Whisper. Faced with a living legend, their swords shook in their hands. They glanced nervously at one another, unsure who should lead the attack. They needed a leader. They needed me. I hefted my mallet over my shoulder.
Whisper clapped his hands and I blinked. When my eyes opened, all of my guards were silent on the floor. I forced myself forward another step with Leon’s future in mind.
“You are not the first minister I’ve created, Joan, but I knew you were different from the start. Night after night, I’ve dreamt about ending my life, only to have my traitorous body draw another breath and remind me of the vow my foolish heart made in my youth: I will leave this world better than I found it. Thank you, Joan. May you always be a clean woman in a dirty business.”
He slashed his dagger across his own throat and slumped to the ground. Smiling, he waited to die.