After two minutes of jaw dropping awe, I knew three things. A place could be too bright, Chandler’s Field were a broken backwater town with four good buildings to make up the main city center, and Bell Town were no town. The name itself had sat in my mind for years and everyone said it were big, but this defied imagination.
I gulped then nodded too quickly. It took me a moment to find my legs. They were below me of course, rooted to the spot a dozen feet inside the city’s wall.
Simon drug me onward while I hunched my shoulders tighter. Even this late, or early, there were too many people. Dozens roamed the main street we traveled along. The trip had been too long and cramped, this were almost as bad.
There were buildings that had a fourth floor, which I knew by counting window lights. As we walked through them along narrow paths, the homes stretched high into the sky to hide stars and moon with their peaks. My head tipped back and stomach knotted. They were taller than I remembered. Even the city walls were deceptively high. Grey wood on the sides made it hard to tell their age. At least a year old. All this lumber in one building could have easily doubled Chandler’s Field in size.
Simon pulled me into a bar. A piano suffered ungraceful hands across the room. Glasses clinked. Scents of flowers, dirt, and a muggy snappiness that went with ale flooded the air. I wrinkled my nose and coughed lightly.
“First time in the city?”
I shook my head.
“You got that wide-eyed look. Deer do it too when they see danger.”
My attention broke. I hadn’t hunted deer. They weren’t common enough around The Mountain. Monsters ate them faster than they could breed, and the only time we got dee is when new herds wandered into the area on a new moon. Simon were really a man of the world if he’d seen them, much less shot one for food.
The realization broke some of the tension. My shoulders were still tight, and the room had too many people but I could find my way to the bar counter.
“Two of your finest liquors,” Simon said while holding up his fingers. “You’re up for a drink right? Seems like the least I can after you helped me to town.”
Our bartender said nothing and held up two drinks. He rubbed his fingers together in a motion that struck me as familiar. He wanted to be paid first. Simon stared at me. I shrugged. He sighed and pulled out a dollar. That proved to be enough for the bar tender. He dropped down our drinks and moved on to the next person in line.
This place were too crowded for my taste. People elbowed me as they walked by. A few hands wandered but Obsidian had taught me a bit of what to look out for when it came to pickpockets. I smiled slowly. He had a few years on me and somehow expected me to have the funds for ales. Simon didn’t call them that though, he’d called them liquors, with an accent that made no sense to my ear.
“Fine. I’ll do first round. You do next. Maybe the one after that. We can roll some dice for it. You a gambling man?”
My head shook. Gambling were a sure way to be parted from one’s belongings. Greg had taught me that over the years by taking every penny I’d earned. Plus I were playing the part of a destitute man down on his luck searching for a job. Which didn’t stray an inch from the truth, except maybe on the destitute part. I’d probably be able to make a li ving hunting monsters from the mine and turning in their hearts to the refinery, assuming they let me, or the Rangers didn’t have my hide first.
Obsidian had also taught me how to pack money away in a few separate places. One for others to take note of, but a second place that were safer. I didn’t have much change to begin with but enough to afford a drink or two before needing to find the inn I’d been told about. I paused with my drink for a moment, then took stock of all the little thing’s the Ranger had been showing me. He might have expected this very situation and never seen fit to tell me.
“So, what brings you to town again? Sorry. I was in such a hurry to get a drink I forgot what you’d told me.”
The subject had never come up. My small pencil and scrapes of paper were in the wrong coat pocket. After a moment of fumbling around my pack, I managed to find them and scribbled out the word “work” in shaky handwriting.
“You got a job lined up?”
I shook my head.
“Tell you what. Come tomorrow, check out the grand sign near the docks. Says work here in letters bigger than bull balls. Boy those were big.” He stopped and took a sip then continued speaking, “Cohones aside, day laborers always have a place to report. Anyone with time and muscle to lend. Always something that needs moving. Or other stuff. You’ve got some muscle. Like a wary sort.”
Cohones? That must have been east cost slang for bull balls. I moved on past the weird word and kept up my side of the conversation.
Thanks, I will, I wrote. The last few months with Obsidian had done a lot to help define my body. Not enough, or it might have been the Hound having an additional cost. Running around for hours as a dog burned a lot of energy.
Simon laughed in a choppy burst. “Oh and that tip isn’t free. You’re buying me the next drink.” He nodded toward the bar tender. “Maybe the one after that. Or after that if you’ve got a penny to spare.”
His advice had been worth at least one drink. My first major problem, finding a job, had all but been solved for me. Of course, I could have wandered around and likely found the sign by myself but it would have taken another day or two. I fished out a dollar and put it down. Our server swept by grabbing money and depositing ale in one motion and kept right on going.
Simon held up his second glass. I’d barely finished my first. “To new towns and new chances,” he said by way of a toast.
I nodded and lifted my own glass. We got drunk, and by sunrise, as I staggered to the Golden Gun, I felt like I’d had a friend. A bit older, like Greg, and certainly chatty enough. For me though, that worked. Someone to smile and nod along with. Someone who didn’t have a hand in the rest of my life. Simon weren’t tied to The Mountain, Rangers, or even Bell Town. He were a drifter.
I’d worked the mines long enough to know that drifters came and went regularly. Simon might be gone tomorrow. He might not.
Muddled thoughts bounced around while I wove an uneven path toward a bed for the day. Golden Gun proved easier to locate than expected. The owner hardly cared for the sway of my body or the pack clutched in my hands. He asked a price and sent me to a room with a card pressed with yellow ink. They’d mixed it with a shard of purple and black that made the material look golden, but I knew it to be a lie. Golden as an ink were a once a year type of color. Wellbrook send down soldiers into the depths if any ever showed up. I couldn’t say where it’d gone, and story always held that the gold weren’t real. Pyrite ink they said it were.
The mattress were filthy. The blankets worse. I stood in the doorway to my tiny room pondering the paint and the weight of my bag. I’d been clutching the damn thing all night despite subjecting myself to more drink than I’d had in months. Greg would have been proud. With that thought, I fell toward the bed and let the lingering drink finish my poor rambling mind off.
At some point my teeth ached. A deep wiry pain that dove down to the back of my jaw and up my cheeks. Stomach muscles tightened and something hard smacked into my face.
Soft pounding echoed along wood to my ear. A hoarse sound crawled out of my mouth.
“Sir?” someone softly called out. “You alright?”
My brain flickered on slowly on like on of Poss’s fancy lights. The room came into view. Dirt brown lined one side. It took a moment to piece it together. I’d fallen out of the crappy bed onto the floor. Pack contents were spread across the room. One pant leg had rolled up past my knee. My nipples were hard enough to cut through the wood under me. I didn’t even remember taking my shirt off. The slit of a window let in red sunlight.
The dry sound came out again. I pushed myself upright. My ribs hurt and the world lack definition.
Someone rapped at the door again. I fumbled with the lock. It had been much easier to get into the room than it were to open the door out.
I got the door open. A woman halfway to feline stood there.
Why do I know that?
My eyes tightened to block out the noise. Not that there were any. Lights were blinding and I felt sick beyond belief. I hadn’t had a hangover like this before.
“You alright?” She smiled.
I nodded but couldn’t be sure. A sharp breathe came out of me and I reeled back from the woman. The ink in her body had be a lot. She seemed near to bursting. I’d never seen anyone like this before. Not the Rangers, them I knew. They were, stable for lack of a better word. This girl were like one of them fizzy drinks sold at the general store. New, fancy, but fit to pop if shook too hard.
With that, I looked beyond the ink at the woman herself. Her skin were tanned but well washed. A robe hung over her shoulders covering everything else up. Bits of lace and string poked out from underneath. Her muscled legs were nearly bare and the shoes added a few inches to her height, making her almost as tall as me, if I could stand up straight.
My back bent slightly from the weight pressing down on my head. The hallway were too bright and long. This damned inn had a dozen rooms on each floor and smelled like a colony of rats were fornicating in every third room. I bobbed unsteadily and poked my head out of the door to look both ways. There were no one else in the hallway but her.
My notepad were back on the nightstand. I went for it, leaving the door wide open. When I turned around, her head were leaning inside to peep around much as I’d checked out the hall earlier.
She kept her feet outside the door, seemingly respecting my privacy but only to a point. Her fingers waggled at me. “Not much belongings, so you’re not fixing to lodge here long. You a drifter?”
Both shoulders bunched in a shrug. I pulled out the pencil and marked away.
Chase. Mute, staying a week, looking for work.
“You’re mute? You know Xavier?”
No, I wrote.
Who the hell is Xavier?
I kept the thought to myself as something to figure out later.
She looked both ways in my room again, up, then down, over me and seemed to study everything while rocking forward on her tippy toes. How she managed to rock while wearing heels were beyond me.
“You got a girl in there?”
That were an over-the-line question to ask.
An eyebrow went up on my face. The women at my door lifted her own fine eyebrow and continued to smile happily. Her body leaned forward in my direction presenting a bound display. I couldn’t help myself and glanced. She weren’t up with Lily but the woman had more than enough to catch my eye packed under her loose robe.
“Guess you’re not taken.” The woman bounced a bit caused what were visible to ripple. “See something you like?”
I said nothing but thought plenty. If Jenn hated men, and Lily wanted me to be her first for a host of sordid acts, and this women were hungry. Downright ravenous. I glanced up again and wondered if she thought all men were steaks, or just me. Either answer had it’s downsides.
The problem were, I had my own desires. It’d been an age since I’d been with a woman. There’d been none since Lily which were at least five months too long. More perhaps. Ink bucked in my mind, bringing up images of the curvy and coyly smiling Lily in a dim light, wearing that damned red corset, the one she’d never had while living in Chandler’s Field. The smell of her skin, sound of her voice as we’d done the deed.
Dizziness hit me. My body tilted into the door frame. The wall shuddered as my door banged into the wood.
My visitor’s antics paused briefly. She frowned slightly, even her eyes turned slightly moist. “That’s right. I wanted to know, you okay good sir? Heard you fall. Didn’t want you to be unable to get up. That happened last week. We had a fellow in one of the rooms, overdosed on tooth drops.”
My face bunched up as I wobbled. My stomach felt shaky. What I needed were food. Instead, I pointed at my crotch and lifted an eyebrow.
“You soliciting me sir?”
My eyes rolled and checks flushed. That hadn’t been my intention at all. Despite the lingering sensations in the back of my mind, it were downright rude to ask a girl if she’d come into the room and take care of business, at least, I’d suspected it to be.
The other woman smiled and winked at me.
You knew I was a man, I wrote slowly.
“Oh.” She flushed almost as much as I had. “You’re asking how I knew that?”
I nodded quickly and pretended I hadn’t been crude enough to point at my crotch in front of a woman like that. Momma would tan my hide if she ever found out, even if I considered myself an adult.
“I smell a man a mile away.” She winked at me. “Bit of marking to help us working girls keep employed. See here?” She turned a shoulder toward me, pushed back the cloak, and tugged down the bit of shirt over her otherwise bare skin. “Marvel it is. A dog in heat, but not a bitch. No good sir. This is a male dog’s face. Or so I’m told. Let’s us find a man in need of a good night for some coin.”
The marking had sharp ears, an uplifted nose, and bit of shine around the neck that might be a chock collar used to keep the dog in line. I weren’t sure how the iconography fit together but the dog on her shoulder were mean looking. I’d seen plenty of markings in Cassandra’s book, but never one that helped finding men with pent up need. That were a whole new use.
My eyes flickered. She had a few other marks besides, most on her back, and a few on hands and feet of all places. What those meant were beyond me but I took note of the faint lines that traced down her fingertips like feathers. They were almost swimming with purples and black inks, that mixed together like a river frozen over for winter.
“You look like you’re in dire need of a helping hand.” She turned around and waved decorated fingers at me. “These here, give a sir feelings he’d never known before. If you’re so inclined. Bit cheaper too if you’re starved for funds. If you’re staying long, we can even work out a bit of a private deal. Bit of rest and relation after a long, hard, day.” Her words dripped with implications.
God help me, I thought with a gulp and half step back. She is the forwardest woman I’d ever met.
I’d never met a woman like her before. The ladies of Chandler’s Field were reserved.
“Or if I’m not your fancy, and you’ve a mind to seek relief for your condition, come on over to Madam Crawfords. We’ve got a woman for every desire.”
I lifted an eyebrow and gave her a once over again. Then I looked around the inn.
“Rent’s cheap for long term guests, but don’t let this fool you. Madam Crawford’s got the cleanest ladies you’ll find this side of the Mississippi.” She put a hand over her heart and raised the other like a man being sworn into office. “Gods honest truth.”
With one finger I slowly pointer at her.
“You’ll find me there, of course. Just ask for Jewels. Though I’d ask you take a bath first, good sir. It’ll help with the impression.”
Of course. My head dipped slowly.
“Madam Crawford doesn’t like us to be solicited by those that are too dirty. A good scrubbing, which we could also do for you, for a modest price.”
A loud bell tolled outside. I turned slowly to look. Jewels turned too then abandoned all her flirtatious behavior.
“Must be going! Pleasure to meet you good sir.” She gave a brief but less revealing bow then dashed off down the hall toward the inn’s front.
Her sway as she ventured away left a lot to be desired. I wondered about all those markings and that full feeling she gave me. Could she be close to transforming to a Feline? Or something else. She might not survive or becoming a Wildling.
That worried me. I wonder if she even knew. Jenn’s description of the process hadn’t said there were any sort of warning. A crossroads, a choice, being overloaded, those were indicators but not useful. I couldn’t use my own experiences because I’d been kicked into a damn bottomless pit made of pure ink. Plus I didn’t really know Jewel at all. She were a mystery who lived nearby. Surely trying to help her would get me the wrong sort of attention. The goal were to lay low but be seen.
Either way, she’d brought up my own desires to be with a woman. Lord have mercy. Now I had a reason to meet the Crawford Ladies, and a dire need to do so soon. There’d be perks a plenty to visiting Bell Town. Especially since no one here were likely to tattle back to momma. Even if they do, what of it? Surely a little dip wouldn’t hurt anyone. I’d heard the miners talking about visiting her establishment many times. I’d even met one of her former girls while doing the Ranger trials.
Though that other girl from ages ago had been rather rude, talking about Ducky’s father and how he’d visited the houses too many times to count. Which didn’t fit against everything else I understood of Mister Lake, Derrek Lake’s daddy. He were a Wildling and lived in Butcher Hills somewhere, and I had to visit him on a new moon.
With that rapid set of thoughts, real life came crashing back. I had chores aplenty before there were time to pursue a bit of personal recreation.
I wanted to drop of Wan’s package before it became an issue. Tawny said the Golden Gun were safe enough to leave my belongings in, but I suspected whatever Wan had given me to pass on needed to go, well before anyone else in town took note of me. Obsidian had been a paranoid sort, telling me all sorts of ways to know if people were following me. Though most of his lessons focused on the wild outdoors and not a maze like Bell Town.
Before that, I needed a wash and shave. It wouldn’t do to try and find work while smelling like a wet dog.
The rooms didn’t come with much aside from a bed and chair. I meandered around until figuring out there were shared bathrooms and they were an utter mess. The shower had a timer tied to it and an insert for coins. I went back to my room then found a nickle. Five minutes later the water shut off with me half shaved and lather still on my face. The old clothes were bundled up and my face shaved with what liquid remained in the sink.
I got back to my room, pulled out Wan’s package and tucked it into my shirt. My extra clothes were bundled into the bag. That went under the bed.
Freshly dressed in my daddy’s finest hand-me-downs, I went off toward the market, hoping to find Wan’s contact. He should be at a shop called “Our Lady’s Piece”. Whatever that were. Wan hadn’t given me much direction beyond a location, a name, and a vague description. Mister Lady. Whatever a Mister Lady were in a place probably named after him. I had a strange feeling about it and Wan hadn’t helped any by getting a far away look when he spoke of the man.
The store itself were on a corner with neatly trimmed hedges decorating the entry way in two rows. Ribbons were woven between the branches making them seem oddly festive. The rest of the market were awash with colors by the nature of items being sold, but none of it had a mark of deliberate decoration like Our Lady’s Piece. Even odder, the store had two names. Right under the first were a smaller set of lettering that said “Your Ladies Peace”.
Store hours were limited. A sign in the window side said they closed at noon, which had to have been hours ago judging by the afternoon sun.
I sighed, made sure the thin package Wan had handed me were still secure, and went to the docks to find work. I’d accomplish something today, beyond looking at a woman’s bare skin and artwork. Not that there hadn’t been a certain appeal to the eye candy. Taking part in the delights she’d promised would cost coin and I wouldn’t feel right spending someone else’s money on a woman for the night. I didn’t even know what the rates were for such services.
The sign Simon had mentioned were extremely obvious. Right at the main pathway to the peer were a ten foot tall carved sign saying “Workers here” and a dozen or so people milling around. They eyed me. I eyed them back and noted they formed a loose lined with the person directly under the sign glowering at me. He pointed to the end. I shrugged and go in after him. Based on the amount of dirt and greasy footprints this place got a lot of traffic. Maybe more in a day than Chandler’s ever saw in a moon.
People showed. They waved at workers and shouted numbers. By the time the line reached me, I had a fairly good idea of what to do. People would give a number of workers, a task, a price, and we could say yes or no. It were that simple. Most of the people offering jobs didn’t have to haggle, implying there were going rates. I waited my turn but didn’t feel stressed. If today didn’t work, I’d go back to the Golden Gun and pass out.
“Hey! You. Fifty cents if you help load. You in?”
Fifty cents were barely enough for a snack but helping were more about word of mouth and getting myself known as a hard worker. I nodded anyway. The goal were to be seen, to work, to get my name known until a steadier job arrived. Surely someone would need a man willing to work for money every day.
He escorted me to longer pier where boats were docked. They had a wagon backed along the peer toward the boat, ready for goods to be transferred from one to the other.
“Put them up there in the same layout they are on the boat.”
I stared at the pile then looked back to the wagon.
A second man who’d been hired along with me snorted then shook his head. “You must be new.”
Up and down my head went.
My coworker pointed. “Here. We’ll on this side. It’s simple stuff.”
“No. Those have to go there. They’re stacked with the heaviest on the bottom.”
They argued over where to put the crates. I wanted to earn back some money from last night’s drinking and stopped worrying about the price. If nothing else, I banked on someone else seeing me as a hard worker. If that failed, they’d at least see me around town. Trying to scrape by.
We got on either side of a crate and got ready to lift.
I nodded. My coworker nodded back, and I we moved on from there. A few dozen boxes left we were done.
Our temporary boss smiled, clapped his hands together, gave me a full dollar, and motioned us off.
Back we went to the line. Darkness were creeping in but money were the root of all necessity. More work meant more money to survive. It meant more visibility and ingraining myself with Bell Town. The line rotated quick enough, but it might not be like this every day. I suspected that the main carriage I’d rode in with, taking a shipment from Wellbrook, were timed with a lot of other shipments. Military shipments would probably be ideal to travel in the wake of, like we’d done coming from Chandler’s Field to Bell Town.
By the time I’d gone through three jobs, Simon showed up. He cut in line behind me causing another tired man to grumble, but the next person looking for workers picked the lot of us. We left almost immediately for another job further down the docks.
On the way, Simon cheerly started a conversation. “Hey! Chase. You made it. I couldn’t get out of bed until an hour ago. Don’t know what those drinks were spiked with.”
“Don’t distract my workers!” the cart owner shouted.
“No sir! I’m ready to work!”
It seemed like everyone out here wanted to move boxes. From the pitches I’d heard, some wanted people to help put up buildings or clean out stables. There were all sorts of needs but a lot of it were day labor works. None of it seemed steady or useful.
My coworkers were different this time but seemed cheery enough. Talking were apparently a way to pass time while performing a boring task like lugging around crates. Or bags. This time we were slinging large bags that smelled like they had rice or some other soft grain that made me want to sneeze.
We had timed our work so they we could move together. It helped me get to know more rules of working the docks, and the others were too happy to fill up the silence with chatter. Our conversation had twisted to telling a drifter like me what options there were.
Simon dropped off a bag of supplies at the designated spot. “Chase, you should join a crew. Most of them got deals to pay their dues. Nancy’s got her group a deal with a local healer. Twice a day they can go to one of the contractors at the rest house there. Get a pick me up, fixes minor problems, green from Wellbrook Mines and inked by the finest tattooist this side of Mississippi.”
The other man, who’s name were Douglas, said, “Nancy hates pretty boys.”
“You don’t know nothing. Nancy loves pretty boys. It’s the rest of her crew that doesn’t.”
Douglas dropped a sack into its spot then marched back to get another set of supplies. “Probably best not to talk to Nancy. Could try Jesse. Hear he’s got an opening down on pier six.”
I tried to remember the places I’d been so far. These docks were pretty big and stretched on a way all along the river. Fingers counted out one, two, three, and so on until Simon started laughing.
“Seven,” he said. “There’s seven piers here. This close to the Mississippi, and Wellbrook, well. Bell Town’s basically a transit hub for everything. Going up river, you’d probably stop here. Going down? Probably stop here.”
I’d thought Bell Town were further from the Mississippi than that. I’d need to find a map soon, especially if being a Hound were going to send me traipsing around the countryside.
Douglas shrugged. “It’s cus Bell’s got the cheapest ink. Traders pop up every day trying to get a deal and run the ink across to the trains on the eastern side. But I hear they’re building a bridge up north to get over the smaller rivers. Maybe one day we’ll push back the Saracons back far enough to build some rails to the south too. But even one to the north’ll help. My brother says it’ll cut hours off of travel to use a train from coast to coast. Can you imagine?”
“Are they?” Simon perked up then grunted as he hefted another crate. “Any work up there? Could use a change from heaving shit around the docks all day.”
“Nah. Immigrants took all the jobs. Them chinks fresh off the boat.”
By this point, I barely could follow the conversation. Douglas seemed to have brothers everywhere in the country and
“You paid your dues yet?”
“Can’t recall. Too broke to pay them now at any rate. Come sunrise I’ll have a few bucks to spare.”
Their banter continued back and forth. I smiled quietly to myself but kept working. A cool night breeze blew off the river’s straight and across the pier.
Fifty miles away and the people were almost the same. The day passed, full of labor, gossip, and getting to know new faces like Simon and Gregory. It felt like my first days at Wellbrook all over again, without the mine spawned critters. It helped a bit to offset my awe from last night, but I’d gotten good at killing monsters over the last few months.
I couldn’t tell which I’d prefer. Peace, quiet, and simple labor or danger, excitement, and crazy plots. Momma were still back there, along with Jenn.
Maybe I could earn enough cash to move them someplace safe from the monsters. I could send them funds like Wan did in his package that still lay close my chest. It’d be easier for all of us, and Bell Town seemed safe enough so far.