Authors: Hilari Bell
“Bring him t’ justice?” The blond boy was too young to be able to sneer so cynically. “I’d give odds against you even getting out of town alive.”
“Well, I mean to try.”
“Then it’s been nice knowing you,” One-eye said. “Anything partic’lar you want on your headstone?”
I laughed. They all jumped, as if such a sound was never heard in these gloomy shadows.
But the girl’s eyes had widened. “You mean it? You’re going to take on the Rose?”
They were all staring now, and the girl’s next words took me completely by surprise.
“Let us help. We know this town. We’ve been spying on him.”
She was completely, heartbreakingly, terrifyingly serious.
“I’m sorry. But you’re only children.”
“We’re tougher than you think.”
Her jaw set in a way that almost made me believe it.
“And you owe us, stranger. We saved your life back there. ‘Least you can do is let us help take him down. Or at least hurt him. We’d do anything. Anything you need.”
“I’m sorry, my partner and I work alone. But be assured, if there’s anything you can do to help I shall call on you.”
They knew I didn’t mean it and their faces fell, like children denied some promised treat.
I wanted to take every one of them home with me—or at least to some place where they’d be safe, and learn to laugh once more. If I could bring this Rose down, someday I might be able to. And to worry about leaving them here alone—though I couldn’t help but do so—was more presumption on my part than anything else.
They had, after all, rescued me.
Six thugs took off after Michael, like dogs after a cat. But these dogs were nursing several injuries, and the cat had already gained considerable distance.
On the other hand, he wouldn’t be able to lead them on forever—and when they lost him, they might return. I’d better get things moving.
By “things” I meant terrified, probably stubborn, people.
I crossed the street to the chandler, who still leaned against the wall.
“Can you stand up?”
He flinched when I knelt beside him, but I clearly wasn’t one of the thugs, and the arms that had risen reflexively fell again.
He had a darkening bruise on one cheekbone, but his eyes were clear so it probably wasn’t broken.
“What? I mean, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to get you to stand up,” I repeated. “Because my friend won’t be able to draw them away for long. And it’d be wise for you and your family to be packed and gone when they come back.”
“Packed? Gone where? I have a business here!”
“Not anymore, you don’t.” I kept my tone brisk, but I felt some sympathy. He’d no doubt put considerable work into this place.
However, Jack had taught me that holding onto a failing plan gets you nothing at best, and dead at worst. The sooner this man figured that out, the better.
He jumped again as the shop door banged open, and a plump woman in a starched cap and apron rushed out. She carried a long, wax-coated paddle and she glared wildly around the street before she flung it aside and knelt beside her…husband, no doubt. Two girls in their late and early teens followed her, and then a boy. His narrow face and lanky form bore no resemblance to the chandler or his family, and his clothes were rougher and shabbier—apprentice.
“How badly are you hurt?” The wife lifted a hand, and tilted the chandler’s face gently toward the light. For a moment I thought she’d weep, but then her soft lips firmed and she turned to me.
“Will you help me get him into the shop?”
“I told you t’ keep them upstairs!” the chandler said to his apprentice.
“Like he could,” said the youngest girl. Her older sister was weeping.
The apprentice shrugged.
“How much damage is there?” the chandler asked.
“That doesn’t matter.” I made my voice sharp enough to cut through the rising hubbub. “You all have to be gone when those men come back, or they’ll take up where they left off. Unless you’ve got enough money to talk them out of it.”
“We could have paid the tax,” the wife said. “But no one bribes the Rose’s enforcers. And he’s decided to make us an object lesson. You’re right, sir. We’ve got t’ leave.”
The Rose. After all these days of digging, pay dirt.
“We can’t just abandon—”
“It’s up to you,” I said. “Though I’d think it would be hard to run your business with crippled hands.”
“But where could we go?” the older girl asked.
“To your uncle Lionel, in Hinksville,” the wife said. “That’s out of even Roseman’s reach.”
“We’ve put ten years into this shop!” The chandler looked as if he was about to cry too. “All our savings.”
“There won’t be any shop, after Roseman’s through with it,” his wife said. “Do you have a better idea? Then we’re going to Hinksville.”
Between us, we got the chandler to his feet. He leaned on me as we followed the rest of his family into the shop’s front room—well lit, and no doubt usually a pleasant place, with the smell of fresh wax and sunlight gleaming on the long counter. Now glass from fancy candle lamps crunched underfoot. The candles had been broken or stamped on.
The mistress was already giving her daughters brisk instructions about what to take. Since they wouldn’t be around to tell anyone what I looked like, I removed Michael’s hat and folded my collar back down. If Roseman’s thugs offered a reward for information about someone matching his description, Michael would have to stay off the street. Which would have made any sane man give up and leave town…but I knew better than to expect that of Michael.
“Take nothing a horse can’t carry,” I told the chandler’s wife. “And you’ll need to buy the horses. If you rent, whoever brings them back could tell Roseman where you’ve gone.”
We passed through another door into the workroom, and the chandler’s voice failed him. They’d smashed most of the hanging racks—that’s probably what made the noise we’d heard—and spilled the big copper kettles of melted wax, which had run over the floor in thick congealing sheets.
The apprentice made a sound of distress, and went to lift one of the spilled tubs off the fire. The small amount of wax that remained in it was beginning to smoke.
The chandler looked at the ruins of his workplace, and the tears finally came.
“I should have paid. I should have shut up and paid, like everyone else.”
“Could you stay?” I asked. “If you agreed to pay…oh, double for a year, or something?”
The woman had already chivvied her daughters up the stairs. Brisk footsteps sounded overhead. She seemed a sensible woman, willing to salvage what she could, and leave the rest without looking back.
Michael could run for a long time. I hoped the thugs were in good shape too. Still…
“You keep watch out the front window,” I told the apprentice. “Yell if you see those men. I’ll take the back door.”
It opened onto an alley, with a clear line of sight for several blocks in either direction.
The chandler sat on a keg, staring around in despair.
“So, you could stay if you paid extra?” I asked it more to keep him talking than because the answer mattered. Rumors of Tallowsport’s corruption and wickedness abounded throughout the Realm, but I’d been skeptical. It seemed I was wrong.
“No. If I’d paid up like I should’ve…well, I can’t say those payments weren’t a problem, but I could have managed. But I had t’ get brave… I started talking t’ my neighbors, see. I had plans t’ raise a delegation, go t’ the Liege Guard in Gollford. There’s a post there, though it’s not as large as the one here. Witnesses, signed statements. I’d already begun t’ gather them. So many people said they agreed with me, that we had t’ stand up… I guess I got too cocky. I decided not t’ pay. And look. Look!”
I did, and under the wreckage I could see a tidy business. It would cost to clean it up and repair the damage, but spilled wax could be scraped up and melted down again. Broken candles could be recast.
“Do you have money on hand, for the payment you skipped and one other?”
It was almost as crazy as one of Michael’s schemes. On the other hand, we’d been looking for work and there was plenty of that here. And eventually, some of the chandler’s rebellious neighbors might be willing to talk to us.
If we could gather sufficient evidence to convince the Liege Guard to pay Tallowsport a visit, I might be able to talk Michael out of trying to deal with Roseman himself.
“Yah, I’ve enough set by for three payments. But it won’t be enough to start a new business, in a new town, with no shop, no supplies, no—”
“Sound hands, our health, and each other.” His wife was coming down the stairs, carrying two canvas bags and a travel case. “That’s enough t’ be starting with. And I was with you all the way, doing something about the Rose, so don’t go blaming yourself. We all agreed.”
The apprentice had left the door to the front room open behind him, and I saw his head turn sharply. Judging by his expression he hadn’t agreed, but no one had listened.
“You can’t stay here,” I said. “Even if Roseman didn’t know your plans, now that they’ve fallen apart one of your neighbors is bound to say something to someone, and it will all come out. But suppose you had someone you could leave behind, to run the shop for you?” I went on. “Someone new in town, who could convince Roseman’s men he’d be happy to pay whatever it takes to make reparation and regain their trust. And eventually, find a buyer for this place, and send you the money from the sale. Minus a reasonable broker’s fee, of course. That should give you enough to set up shop in Hinksville, or wherever you choose.”
“No one would dare take the place,” the chandler said bitterly. “All my friends live here. And they’ve their own businesses to run.”
“Your wife’s nephew from Huckstable might be able to do it. And his best friend. Since they came to give the chandelling trade a try, to see if it suited them.”
The chandler stared at me blankly.
“Me, you nitwit!”
His face came alive under the spreading bruise, suspicion warring with hope. “Why would you be willing to do that? And why should I trust a stranger t’ pay me?”
“As if we’ve a better choice?” his wife asked tartly. “No one we know would dare take the place. Indeed, sir, you don’t understand what you’d be risking.”
“Then I’ll charge a larger fee,” I said. “And you might not be able to trust me, but you can trust my friend.” I expected Michael to return soon. Him, or the enforcers. “He’s too crazy to care about the risk, anyway.”
I did care, but if we paid up promptly, with interest and plenty of groveling, Roseman should consider a cowed shop owner who paid him regularly more profitable than a burned-out building and couple of corpses.
Chasing the chandler and his family out of town was enough to make his point.
“But you’ve got to leave now,” I added, as the daughters came down, laden with bundles. “Can you buy horses and still leave me enough for the payments? The horses don’t have to be good ones.”
I preferred not to tax Michael’s and my purse more than was necessary.
“Yes,” said the wife. “I’ll show you where. We’re trusting you, sir.”
“What about me?” The apprentice spoke up for the first time.
“Why…why, I suppose you’ll come with us.” But the chandler, perhaps thinking of the price of even a not-so-good horse, sounded dubious.
“It’s the least we can do, to reward you for not running off like the rest,” the wife added. “We’ll be able to use you, I’m sure. Or Lionel will.”
So this boy would go from apprentice chandler to servant. And no one had spoken of pay, either. I saw the boy’s expression change as he realized this.
“Or you can stay here,” I said. “And teach my friend and me what we’re supposed to be doing. You’d be the lead apprentice, and paid…well, more than the other apprentices. When we have other apprentices.”
* * *
The chandler and his family departed, promising to send me an address where I could send the money from the sale of their business, and I had a chance to talk with our new employee.
We began picking up and tallying the damages—him doing the tallying, and me tossing broken racks into the alley and scraping wax off the floor.
I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Michael, who should have been back by now. Him or the thugs.
The boy’s name was Hannibas, and he’d been apprenticed first to another master who, he said succinctly, was a right bastard. The chandler had been a better one—but he’d probably have run off with the others, if he’d had anywhere to go.
Michael showed up almost half an hour later, just before I had to go looking for him. He didn’t even appear ruffled, much less in the dire straits I’d begun to imagine. He was also surprised that the thugs hadn’t returned to finish the job.
“If they’re not back by now, they probably won’t come till tomorrow,” he said.
I was too busy restraining my irritation about how long Michael had been gone to worry what he’d been doing all this time. And I should have.
But Hannibas told us that the other apprentices’ contracts had been with the chandler, and they were scared enough of this Roseman that they probably wouldn’t return at all. And when Michael said, “Don’t worry. I think I can find us some workers,” I didn’t think twice about it.