As much as we shouldn’t make fun of him it had become a bit of a running joke at how often he overlooked something the rest of us found obvious. It came from an old fashioned way of thinking and there were a lot of laws around with quirks and loopholes we took advantage of. Elswick was playing the system just like the rest of us.
“What’re you writing?”
“If I wanted you to know I would have written it in your language,” he sighed and crossed something out aggressively with his quill. I looked over his shoulder to see if there was anything I might recognise but there was nothing similar between his language and mine, except the alphabet. That was the same.
There was a scuff at the door, we both looked up. My eyes went to the missing wedge at the bottom out of habit but they soon returned when they saw nothing there. Probably just a stray animal.
Ewel had strange words, most of them I couldn’t even begin to think of saying properly. It was fascinating seeing all these words I didn’t know existed. So much so I was leaning on the back of his chair to get a better look, almost pressing my arm into his shoulder. I wanted to understand what it said, not because I wanted to know his secrets just for the sheer achievement of getting to the point where it makes sense.
“It’s so different, how’d you learn ours?”
“It was just a few years of study,” there was a hint of something in his voice, hard to place but odd to hear. It sounded a little bit like triumph and little bit like annoyance. I’d always place my money on him being annoyed. “It would probably take you longer.”
“Obviously, as I don’t want to,” I stepped back. My throat was dry, just when I went to get myself some water there was a confident knock at the door. It came alone and somehow, despite the deadening quality of the wood, resounded around the room.
Elswick looked up so quickly I’m sure I heard his neck crack.
Silence followed and neither of us moved. Seconds ticked by then another solitary knock came, this time followed by a shout.
I relaxed, I recognised the voice and knew it was the same guy as always. Elswick, though, was still on edge. He gathered his notes, folded them up and stuffed them in his pocket.
“Y’know I don’t like being kept waiting,” the taxman snapped as soon as I opened the door. Careful to not be too suspicious I kept it mostly closed. His eyes narrowed and I tried not to squirm.
“If only our lives revolved around you.” Good. No trembling, nothing to say that things had changed in a week. Has it really been a week? It had gone so quickly, although at times it felt like years were passing. “What’s it this time?”
“Same as last week,” he said trying to peer over my shoulder, “though it’s more if there are more of you living in there.”
He held out his hands, those disgusting yellow nails looking dangerous. I rooted around in my pocket and found the money he was after.
“‘Fraid not. It’s me on my own, as always.”
For a man whose whole life was about taking money from people it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise how quickly he moved. Before I’d had a chance to drop the coins in his outstretched hand it lashed out and grabbed my arm, tightly. Still, I gasped a little in shock and tried not to cringe away from the fact that he was actually touching me.
“You better not be lying to me, girl,” his face was in mine as he whispered, his breath was awful, “you steal from me and you steal from the Regent and he ain’t gonna look kindly on that now, is he.”
I shook my head, trying desperately to get my arm back.
“I ain’t lying, it’s just me. It has been for years.”
“I heard you talking to someone earlier.”
The noise at the door, he’d been hanging around and these houses weren’t exactly soundproof. I looked into his eyes, doing my best confused impression. They were vicious but there was no intent in them. I had no doubt he was the sort of man to lay all his cards on the table if he knew something he shouldn’t. He liked money, he wanted more of it and he’d use any knowledge he had to get it. If he’d heard what we were talking about we wouldn’t still be hanging out in my doorway, instead a couple of guards would be marching me to the nearest jail.
“Just talking to myself, do it quite often. Not that it’s any of your business,” I made it sound like I was offended by his interest, rather that scared shitless.
“Why would you be doing that?” The fire was seeping out of his eyes.
“It happens when there’s no one else to talk to,” quick, think. “I have any idea I wanna go over with my colleague and he can be a stubborn arse at times.”
“What’s the idea?”
“Ahhh. Now, that definitely ain’t your business.”
Pushing him away I offered him the money for my tax. He stumbled back, looking stumped. I could actually see the hope fleeing his eyes as he realised he wouldn’t be getting any more from me, but his expression hardened and I knew I was going to regret today. Without another word he took the money and stormed away.
After I closed the door I leaned against it, legs shaking, and closed my eyes. He was a terrifying man and I never really understood that until now.
“You lied well,” Elswick’s voice made me jump.
“Shhh,” I leapt forward and pushed him away from the door and to a corner in the living area, which was directly attached to the kitchen. A very basic home, the only internal walls I had were for the guest bedroom, which the stairs ran up alongside. “He was listening to us earlier, he might still be around.”
“A man like that, you wounded his pride. He’s not going to hang around where he lost a battle,” he was calm and his words were spreading it to me, “at least not until he comes up with a plan for revenge.”
Nope. No calm for me.
“You’re gonna get me killed,” I whispered frantically while trying to listen to the outside.
“Oh no, no chance of that. The Regent won’t execute you,” he was completely unfazed by this.
“Oh yeah, it’s far too messy. When was the last time you saw or even heard of anyone getting executed?”
“You know, you’re proper crap at being comforting.”
“Sure, but I always speak the truth,” It think he was laughing at me. “Anyway, who’d have thought you’d lie to a government official about a Heben.”