Chapter two

Of course, I didn’t know what was going to happen and didn’t particularly care. My only thoughts were about getting from week to week. The taxman was due round today and about half the money I earned would go with him.

Trudging home I allowed these thoughts to wonder but soon regretted it because everything hinged on the success of the stall. I’d have to pay Warren as well, he kept the stove warm and gave me more fresh bread throughout the day. We did have a store but lost it a few years ago, we just couldn’t afford the upkeep.

A Heben rushed past and I flinched, a couple of men shouted after him throwing insults his way. Someone was begging in the doorway of a run-down building and I shifted my eyes away. I’d worked hard all day to get what I had and couldn’t afford to throw any of it away for no reason.

Home was a mess of windows, walls and door. Lopsided, grimy and surrounded by similar looking buildings. Although at a slant. the door was solid and issued a confident challenge to anyone trying to get past it, including me. The hinges were rusting and there was a small wedge missing from the bottom, letting a mean breeze in during bad weather, not to mention the sly cold creeping in during winter. The windows weren’t much better. Glass was a luxury and luxury was not found in the fourth quadrant, rare in the third too; unless someone had stolen something. I had shutters covering the windows, bolted tightly all the time. Thieves were all too common and I wasn’t going to give them an invitation. There was some wear and tear to the walls, nothing too bad but enough to make it look ramshackle when the roof was thrown in. The thatch needed replacing and there were a lot of leaks when it started raining.

Spider webs stretched across the door, the spiders shuffled along as I tried to get through it and managed to cling on as I finally pushed it inward to get through it. There wasn’t anything particularly homey about the inside but the time I spent here I was mostly asleep so it didn’t matter. I threw the bread onto the table, the wood was decorated with droplets from candles and the occasional burn but was otherwise clean. I was just setting up the fire when there was a knock at the door.

“Taxman,” a gravelly voice called out from beyond. I opened it to find a man who enjoyed collecting other people’s money instead of spending his own. His coat was worn at the elbows, the collar was hanging by a thread and judging by the smell he either didn’t wash his clothes or himself. He looked me up and down.

“Asha Quinn?” The voice didn’t soften any.

“Yeah. How much d’ya want?” I asked. The taxman wasn’t liked by anyone but made everyone uneasy.

“Two silvers and three coppers,” he stretched out a hand, grubby with long, yellow nails.

“S’gone up. That’s more than last week.” It was always more than last week, I don’t know why I was surprised. He shrugged his shoulders and cleared his throat. It was no bother to him if it went up. He only collected the tax, he didn’t set it.

“The strain of a growing population. We need to support these extra people,” he kept his hand out and flexed it slightly as a gentle reminder. I dropped the coins into his waiting hand, careful not to touch him, and he walked away to take food out of the mouths of the rest of the quarter.

The strain of a growing population. Those ruddy longlifes had a lot to answer for.

***

I thought that would be the most eventful part of my day, there wasn’t usually much more to my week than work and the taxman taking my money. But just before I was about to head to bed (not long after sunset) there was a lot of noise outside. It sounded like a couple of drunk people arguing. Knowing there was no chance of sleeping through it I stood beside my door, hand on the latch, ready to step outside but hoping I wouldn’t need to. But they didn’t stop so I forced myself through the door and pushed myself forward without even taking in the scene.

“Oi,’ I yelled at them, “some of us have work.” They ignored me, which is pretty much expected. I’m happy to make myself known when there’s money to be had, otherwise the shadows are my friends.

“Oi,” I tried again. This time one of them looked over.

“Git back inside girl. This don’t got nothin’ to do with you.” It took a few seconds to figure out what he meant. As I said, I came storming out without taking in what was going on but now I looked at them I saw a man on the ground. The two drunks were kicking him and there was blood on the ground.

“You’re disturbin’ everyone outside my house. I think it does have something to do with me, you know.” I blessed the hearthfire for sounding braver than I felt. He turned aggressively, sizing me up. It didn’t take long. I was very slight and spent my life looking up to anyone around me, meaning I had a withering glower always at hand to make up for my lack of size. His friend was spitting at the curled-up man on the floor, not really concerned by someone interrupting them.

“Scum like you shouldn’t be allowed.”

I didn’t really hear his words even though he shouted them, I was too busy keeping an eye on the guy who’d spoken to me. He was moving himself closer, as if he was going to shove me out the way. So I sent him that look and he stopped, doubt flickering across his face. Deciding it was best not to draw any more attention he tapped his friend on the shoulder and jerked his head up the street.

“Reckon we should get outta here,” he said, “some nosey sods just can’t keep to themselves.” For the first time the other man noticed I was there and stumbled towards me a couple of steps before he stopped, a hand round his arm pulling him back.

“You shouldn’t have bothered yourself,” he spat, “You don’t wanna git involved with people like that.”

Those were his only words of wisdom before disappearing down the darkening street. There was a groan from the huddle on the floor. I tried to ignore it. All I wanted was quiet and now I had it. what’s the point of getting involved further. But he sounded so hurt it was impossible to turn away. I helped him to his feet and steadied him as he wobbled. With nowhere else to take him I headed back to my house, bolted the door quickly behind us and guided the bleeding man so he could collapse in a chair. A clean cloth and a basin of water was all I could offer but he accepted it gratefully as I cleaned his wounds. There was blood over his face and the bruising was already coming up.

“Don’t worry too much, you’ll heal up quick enough,” I said as I wiped away the last of the blood. He was bald so it was easy enough to find any injuries to his head. “It’s not gonna stop hurting though. You’ll have to put up with that.”

He shrugged his shoulders as if it was no big deal. He kept his eyes closed, although to be fair one of them was swollen shut.

“You can stay here the night, go home tomorrow. It’s never good trying to find the way in the dark,” I was mumbling and talking for the sake of talking. He didn’t reply to any of it. Once he was cleaned up I showed him the guest room, although that was a generous name to give it, As I turned to go he grabbed my arm, surprisingly strong for someone who’d so recently suffered a beating.

“Thank you,” he croaked and cleared his throat, “for your help. People don’t usually bother helping me.” His voice was soft and full of youth with a strange twang to it. An accent that didn’t belong to Solo. He finally met my eyes and, even though there was nothing there to tell me, I knew exaxctly what he was.

A Heben.

One of those ruddy longlifes.

I felt sick at the sight of his hand on my arm. Almost like he sensed the change in attitude he let go and shut himself away with a click. I found myself standing in my own hallway, shut out of my own guest room, with a Heben on the opposite side of the door. Too tired to do anything about it I made my way to my own room and hid myself.

I even moved some furniture in front of the door, it didn’t feel safe with one of them in the house. A fitful sleep followed and when morning came peaking through the window I hoped he had enough sense to leave quietly. But he was still there, standing at the stove.

I turned away and left the house.

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