Old Madeline Trista froze only a moment when she heard Toby throw open the window to his small rented room not five feet above her head. She had not dared look up to see if he was watching her, for fear of encouraging his attention. Instead she had kept her eyes downward, making herself busy watering the sickly brown root-like bush she kept in a small trough on the front of her home, a home recent events had forced her to share with Toby.
Madeline quickly resumed her watering, distracting herself with evenly spreading out the water to all areas of the dirt, aiming for a slight discolouration of the soil as opposed to overfilling the trough and potentially drowning the plant. This necessitated frequent trips to the nearest well almost a half mile away, but she made the trip gladly, twice per day. She could barely justify the time expense even from the perspective of the most doting caretaker. But almost was good enough when the alternative was a house with Toby.
“Why you spend so much time on this ugly thing anyway?”
Madeline paused a second, as if delay could prevent this new round of torment. Some part of her had vainly hoped that he was simply opening the window to the room that once belonged to her children to breath in the fresh Belsport air. Air that, this time of year, was filled with the reek of the rotting cargo from the docks, a stench so bad it almost drowned out the rank air of streets dirty with droppings, only some of which was from horses and other animals.
But no, Toby had not opened the window to clear his head, or enjoy the pleasant view to the side of the cramped alleyway, ostensibly named Royal’s Way, opposite Mrs. Trista’s house. He was entirely disinterested in setting his eyes upon scenic shacks often filled with consetta addicts that lined the opposite side, one single beggar being the only visible occupant of the street, although there was often regular traffic. Nor was he interested in turning his head to take in the majestic view of an alleyway curved so quickly as to disappear not fifty feet from them. Toby was here to torment her, as was Toby’s way. Her eyes moved up from the plants halfway to the window, stopping for a second to consider his question, not quite willing to meet his eyes just yet.
To get away from you of course.
She never truly considered saying that to him, but a part of her fantasized nevertheless. Even that thought was quickly dashed as she finally looked up at Toby’s pudgy, burned, and tatoo’d face. She almost managed to hide the flash of anger she felt upon seeing his smug smile that didn’t quite reach his beady, too narrow eyes. She quickly looked back to her ugly brown plant, far more pleasant company.
“This is nightwhisper from Avallone. It blooms once every few months, at nighttime, and only for a few hours. It is said that – “
“Once every few months!”
Her eyes met Toby’s once again, his head cocked to the side as he continued with the same mock incredulous tone.
“Did I hear you right Mrs. Trista? You spend all day watering this thing and it blooms once per month?”
Toby was rewarded with another, even more poorly disguised, flash of anger on Madeline’s face. One she tried to hide by once again casting her eyes from him back to the plant.
“Hey,” he said, before snapping his fingers at her twice, “it’s rude to not answer me. You should know better than that at your age.” Toby waited for her to look up before continuing, staring right at her. “What are you anyway a hundred? You’d think you’d of learned by now.”
Toby was less pleased with his outburst than the yellow smile, fixed on his face, would lead one to believe. But a lesson he had learned long ago, drilled into him by one shakedown after another, is that you have to keep up appearances. He was a simple man, but he took pride in his work, whether it be humiliating Mrs. Trista or cutting off the finger of an addict behind on rent or deep in debt.
Making them see you enjoy yourself is half the charm.
Madeline closed her eyes, breathing in deeply. Inhaling the stench of Belsport, especially this close to the docks, being preferable to dealing with Toby with unsteady nerves. She considered not answering him, but that would only trigger his rage and taunting. She considered lying, oh I just like pretty plants Toby, but it was plain for all to see, even with the sun setting as they spoke, that the plant was an ugly little thing. That left nothing but the truth, pathetic though it might be when said aloud.
“It is said that a wish made while it blooms comes true.”
After a second Madeline resumed her watering, but the light sound of her makeshift jug sprinkling the last of its contents onto the nightwhisper plant was immediately joined by a muffled sound that she wished she didn’t understand, Toby’s laughter. That it was clearly forced did nothing to lessen the sting, and she closed her eyes and froze her body as if awaiting a physical blow.
“You water this stupid thing every day so that it blooms once a month during the night. What a waste of time.”
Madeline’s eyes met Badrach’s again, the glee clear as day on his face.
Just ignore him.
It was the wisest course of action, but a spark of indignation forced the words out of her mouth.
“You never know what I’ll wish for, Toby,” spoken with just a hint of a threat. No sooner had she said it than she regretted it. In a half second Toby’s face cycled through shock, then anger. That’s a face that could use a fist or two Madeline. You better be more careful. But with that thought he looked around at the rest of the seedy alley known as Royal Way. Never know when some untrustworthy eyeballs are watching. With that he composed himself, the false smile returning to his face.
“Wishing upon a flower,” he said, as if talking to a particularly stupid child.
Madeline Trista turned back to her nightwhisper as if to tend to it more, although her water jug was empty. Seeing this she looked around the trough, holding the index finger of her right hand to her mouth in a decent pantomime of a gardener planning something, as if she was thinking about anything other than him leaving her alone.
“What’s the plant gonna do?”
Madeline did not need to watch his face to feel that dark yellow grin stretching from one side of his face to another.
“No I’m serious Mrs. Trista, what’s the plant gonna do?” Toby was finding himself more and more satisfied. Oh sure, he had forced a laugh or two, but it was worth it to see the old cunt nice and worked up.
“I will wish for an end to this god forsaken war.”
Madeline had tried making her face neutral, but not quite succeeded. She stared at Toby with a muted look of anger and defiance, a look that seemed to challenge him to say something back to her. Toby may not have been perceptive at much, but in his line of work you had to understand those subtle emotions on people’s faces.
That doesn’t suit her complexion. Not. One. Bit.
“Is the plant going to end the war Mrs. Trista?”
“It may! How?” Toby waited for a moment. “What happens if someone in Comox wishes upon one of these things too, huh? They got those things up there?”
“I imagine that they are as sick of this war in Comox as they are here, Toby.”
“You know if you were a real patriot you’d wish for us to win the war. Not just for it to end. What if that means that we lose, eh?”
“Well Toby I -“
“So the Comoxers are -“
“Shut your fucking mouth you cunt,” it was said with such a viciousness that Mrs. Trista did precisely that, at least for a while. “The Comoxers are all wishing for them to win, meanwhile you, the traitor, are wishing for the war to end. So what do you think the God of nightslander is going to -“
“Shut. Your. Fucking. Mouth. You CUNT. We’re gonna lose the war because of you, you little twat. How many men are gonna die because you wished upon the plant that the war end meanwhile the Comoxers are wishing for their soldiers to win the war, huh?”
Madeline looked up at him, her feet rooted to the ground. He seemed on the verge of doing something before his seething face was replaced with yet another smirk as he tapped his finger to his forehead.
“Not very smart are you?” Toby waited for her to respond, loving that she didn’t, instead turning away from him and getting back to pretending to water the ugly brown sticks. “Mrs. Trista, you can’t water without water, now can you?”
Toby held back a chuckle as Mrs. Trista’s eyes closed and her shoulders slumped, the pure image of a defeated woman. “Mrs. Trista I asked you a question. You can’t water -“
“No, what?” Toby once again waited patiently for an answer. “Mrs. Trista, no what? Full sentences please.”
“No, you can’t water without water,” she said with gritted teeth, staring at the trough.
Toby was about to say something more to her when he glanced at the ever darkening sky.
There’s no rush for her. She’ll be here when I get back late tonight, if I get back.
He took his eyes off her to turn and admire his reflection in the small mirror mounted on the wall of his messy rented room. A smattering of mismatched tattoos covered his face. Six black tear drops under his left eye. A skull and bones on his neck. A dragon on the left side of his skull. And of course, Mother Sophia on his right cheek. After all, why not? If there was one thing Toby believed about himself, it was that he was going to heaven. If there was one thing everyone else believed, it was that he was aiming for the minimum requirements for entry. Well he agreed with that too. Why give maximum effort when minimum effort will do?
Toby’s eyes cast down the rest of his attire. He had a black tophat ready to be put on, a purple vest – to signify royalty – a beige dress shirt with embroidery partially covered up by his vest, black pants so tight that they ended a full three inches before his ankles, showing off mismatching white and black socks that ended in brown leather shoes too large for him to comfortably walk in.
Toby didn’t have enough experience with such clothing to understand why his outfit didn’t quite resemble the aristocrats he saw every now and then walking about, but he knew enough to understand that dress attire appeared to be more than a collection of fancy articles. Well even he knew that pants were supposed to go all the way down, but it was too late to fix that now. It’s hard to steal the right kind of clothes. Asking for a perfect fit is simply asking too much.
It’s the thought that counts.
He burned off some of the nervous energy turning side to side like a young girl trying out a new dress. But all he was finding out was that he lacked a good side. His clothes were awful from all angles. His face was bad from the left, but that was better than the view from the right, with the burns he had received as a child prevented the hair from ever growing right, instead leaving him with bald patches where his hair ought to be, broken by splotchy patches of burn heals.
At least his new employers should know what they’re getting in him. He had been told to dress well, despite never doing that before in his life, and had made the effort to not insult them. These were not the kind of people to insult. But then again, they weren’t the kind of people you stole precious cargo from either, but until someone invented time travel he couldn’t fix his past mistakes.
And in fact, I wouldn’t even if I could.
“Hey why ain’t you wishin’ for Mr. Trista to show up some day? I been here two months and I ain’t never seen the guy yet.”
He continued his taunting of Madeline somewhat absentmindendly, self-medicating away his agitation through cruelty. Only when he had finished speaking did he tear his eyes from the disappointing vision of himself in the mirror, back to outside the window. But when he took one step forward to look at Madeline he was already back to the Toby she knew and loved, his worries about his new employers put aside, his attention focused purely on her.
You have to be able to get in character in this line of work.
“When’s that guy gonna show up eh? He’s too old to be with the army up North, right? What’s he up to? He run away on you. Start stickin it in some younger broad?”
Toby didn’t have to fake the amusement on his face this time, and barely bothered with the mock concern, knowing that she wouldn’t meet his eyes again. He was rewarded, from his perspective, with a sudden shininess in her eyes, visible even in the twilight of dusk, and an almost perfectly hidden little sniffle.
That’s more like it you old cunt.
He’d been told to move only when it was fully nighttime, and it was almost time to go. He considered grabbing the silver silk tie he had snagged off a visiting aristocrat from Tear who had gone down the wrong path. But no amount of trying had let him teach himself how to tie it, so it would have to stay. But before he could trot downstairs he heard Madeline’s voice call back to him.
“Why are you like this?”
It was an annoying question, and one that threw him off. He’d never been one to respond to curveballs well. Toby had no real ability to think on his feet, but he’d picked up a few tips and tricks from doing all the, what do you call them, interrogations. That and a high tolerance to stress and aggression.
Interrogations, yeah that’s right.
Interrogation, one of those fancy words a Tal employer had told him about. “Interrogation,” the little creep had said, looking up at him with those beady eyes and jet black curly hair. “It’s more pleasant than torturing don’t you think Garyk?” And then the little creep had smiled, as had the two other Tals, like there was some joke that they knew that he didn’t. That had bothered him.
But he’d liked that word, interrogation. And he’d like motivation. That was it from then on, interrogation and motivation, and Madeline was motivatin’ him to motivate her into an early grave.
“Why am I like what? You’re the broad who thinks some sticks is gonna stop a war.” And with that he turned to leave, only to hear her whining back at him.
“Does all the suffering of others really mean nothing to you.”
Toby had a midnight appointment with the most dangerous people in the World. He really couldn’t be dealing with this right now. Or rather, he shouldn’t be, but that was just too much to let go.
“Honey you’re watering a bunch of sticks. They’re ugly and they smell bad.”
“You’re one to talk.” Madeline cringed at herself for what had leapt out of her mouth, but she forced herself to stand tall and look him in the eye. What was done was done. She only wished it had been done in front of more witnesses.
“Listen. Hey,” he snapped his fingers at her, even though she was already looking at him. “Bitch. You wanna pray to some sticks. Maybe you coulda went up North and served as a nurse or something. It’s not like you got any pups around here to take care of.” Yeah bitch, I saw that wince. “What was it you told me when I moved in. I was taking your little rat Jemma’s room. What was it you said, kept coughing when just before her thirteenth birthday. Never stopped ’till she died.” Saw that one too. Although it’s more like blind rage.
“I can’t believe -“
“SHUT. YOUR. FUCKING.” Toby’s scream trailed off, as angry at Mrs. Trista as she was with him. Two deep breaths and he continued. “You wanna help, go up North and spread your legs for the boys. I’m sure, even at your age. It’s not like you’ve got a husband anymore.” He stood there a moment longer. Let it sink in that you’re gonna stand there and take it cunt. With that thought he turned away, ready –
“And what would you wish for, Toby, if the nightwhisper flowered tonight?”
“I wouldn’t wish for anything you dumb bitch,” he said, wheeling back around, “that’s the whole point. It’s a bunch of sticks, not something real. This is a real mean world, woman. What? I see you seething at me right now. Well good, be mad, then stand there and do nothing. I’ve broken men’s fingers, every one of them on their hands, and seen them fight harder roped to a chair then you ever will. You wanna pretend that the problems of this world can be solved by wishing upon a fucking flower. Well I’ve seen problems get solved with fists, knives, and poison. You want to make the war –
“People like you are the problem with this world.”
“No honey, I’m the guy that the people who cause the problems hire, and if it weren’t me it would be someone else. Speaking of which,” he said looking at the almost black sky – when did that happen? – “I am going to be late if -“
“If what, if you can’t stop screaming at an old woman who simply wants to pray for the sake of others? Well maybe I’ll -“
“You are a cozy, little, cunt, who is finally seeing the world I’ve lived in my whole entire life because your rich husband is having his eyes eaten by worms right now. If you actually wanted to stop this war -“
“No you don’t.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Shut up. If you, – I said shut up you miserable old cunt.” Toby glared her mouth shut. “If you actually wanted to stop this war, not make yourself feel better by pretending, you would have to rally a bunch of people, and uh, you know, take out loans and stuff, and get mercenaries and assassinate people and do a whole bunch of other things. I dunno, I’m not a general or anything, but you don’t want to do that, you just want to water a plant and feel good about yourself. So you wish upon a – not even flower – this ugly stick thing.”
You’re, ” with that Toby trailed off. A part of him was impressed that he had gotten a rant off his chest of such length so smoothly. A different part of his brain was screaming at him that he was about to be late for a midnight rendezvous with the most dangerous people in the world, and that was a very fucking bad idea. With that he turned back once again, only to be pulled back for the last time.
“You’re right Toby. I’ve lived a life sheltered from the likes of you.” Madeline looked up through crying eyes at the hideous tattoo’d pudgy monster, little different from a creature out of the scary fairy tale books her loving father would have given to her as a young child. “I had a mother who loved me, and a father the same. I had a husband once who -“
“Once, not now though. Now the worms have him.”
“Who loved me, and who I loved.” She had continued as if he had said nothing.
“Yes and he’s dead now, along with that little girl whose room I occupy.”
“Better to have lost everything then never had anything Toby.” Wiped the smirk of his face. “What, you think I hadn’t noticed that you sneak off to cavort with women who wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t pay them? I’ve lost the people in my life who cared about me, but at least I had them in the first place.”
Madeline saw a much deeper and darker rage now set in on Toby’s face. Hit a spot have we Toby. “My parents loved me, what happened to yours Toby? Whore of a mother?”
“Never saw your father?”
Not the real one anyway, and I could’ve done without the fake ones, the thought causing him to touch his burned face without thinking about it, his eyes glaring daggers into her. But she was done talking, so they just stood there, staring at each other.
Madeline only realized she was holding her breath when she saw him turn, walk down the steps and open her front door with a creak. She considered moving out of the way of the inevitable, maybe even running off, but it was too late, and her feet had turned to stone anyway. All she could do was straighten her back and close her eyes. Take her punishment like a man. More of a man than you Toby.
Either he moved past her or he beat her, those were the two options. And yet, after the door had opened neither had happened, with the faint but unpleasant smell of him refusing to dissipate. After another long moment she forced herself to open her eyes and look at him before immediately glancing away, unable to meet his murderous gaze.
So this is how it ends for Madeline Serah Trista. Murdered by the thug she rented a room to, the last of her name. It was a thought of hers mysteriously accompanied by another. All those mismatched fancy clothes but no cologne. I would have preferred he look as normal and smell better than smell as normal and look… this way.
Toby hadn’t missed the wince on Mrs. Trista’s face when he stopped there. Nor did he miss the subtle play of emotions on her face while he waited. Nor did he miss brief but undisguised fear on her face when he took a step towards her.
“Mrs. Trista,” it was said as a man says to a dog. “Mrs. Trista,” he said again, in the same sing song way while he stepped as close to her as a lover. “Mrs. Trista,” he whispered into her ear, “I’d like a kiss goodbye. Maybe something to make you feel like you have a husband again.”
“Aren’t you going to be late?” said Madeline, her eyes still closed.
He was having too much fun with the old hag and he’d lost track of time. One last venemous look for her was all he could manage. “Thank you for your concern Mrs. Trista, but no,” he said, a very irrational and petty part of his brain not wanting to give her the satisfaction of knowing how precarious a situation his temper tantrum had put him into. He turned on his heels and wheeled away, vowing, no matter how silly, not to start running until he was out of earshot of Mrs. Trista. And with that he was off, his hurried steps echoing further and further from her.
Madeline waited in the moonlight, her eyes opening and looking at nothing but the wall until long after he had walked out of site down the curvy alleyway. She didn’t know why, but she waited until he was so far that she couldn’t hear his heels clanking loudly against the stone street over the subdued background of Belsport before she finally closed her eyes again.
With that she let out a deep breath of relief, catching herself with one hand against the wall, hunched over as if she was about to be sick. Slowly she recollected herself, and with one last glance at the nightwhisper she wondered if she would have the strength to wish for anything other than Toby’s death, even if the rent he paid to her was all that was keeping her alive. There comes a certain point where a life turns into an existence. With that thought she opened her door and walked back into her house, finding after she sat down that she was still shaking with energy.
“Aren’t you late for a job.”
Toby’s tophat had fallen off some ways back, but he still struggled with his oversized leather shoes, his angry, half running footsteps traveling with him through the twisted and dangerous stone paths of Belsport, as Mrs. Trista’s last words played back over and over in his mind. It was preposterous that he would be late for these people, and yet he was. Either you run away from them or you show up on time. The Tals are not the kind of people who you can be fashionably late for. Not the kind to keep waiting. And very much the kind to make examples of people.
Nasty people. And that’s coming from me.
It was a reputation they had well deserved, and one that he himself could attest to, as a former employee. But that was back when he was Garyk, another continent away. Before he had stolen some cargo from them and set up a new life for himself in the first place the ship had landed across the Sea.
Maybe I shoulda moved to the second place you can get to from ship. Or maybe even gone inland a bit. How angry can they be that I stole one measly little child anyway?
The certainty of the answer caused him to pause entirely, despite his rush. The Tals had long memory and now, unfortunately, longer reach. And they certainly didn’t dislike making their victims suffer before the end. He spun around, looking back up the path that he had taken from Mrs. Trista’s house, a sanctuary compared to where he was going.
But it was only a moment before he turned around. He had already uprooted his life once, he was too old to start over again. Besides, he’d only managed financially because he’d stolen an advance from them in the first place, along with the child.
Speaking of, I shouldn’t have said that about poor Jemma. She didn’t deserve that.
The vision of another child struck him, lying in bed with sweat causing her light brown hair to darken and stick to her scalp. It was enough to cause him to involuntarily breathe out and stop.
What if all that, and she just got coughing and that was that. Nah, no way.
Toby sped up again to his half-run. He’d done some unspeakable things. Or rather, things which decent people would consider unspeakable. Toby would brag about these exploits to any company who would listen. He had seen men die gruesome, slow deaths. He had caused men to die gruesome, slow deaths. But the horror of his vision stunned even him. It was something darker and more sinister than pain.
He’d done so many terrible things in his life that it all ran together and he’d forgotten most of it. He’d done bad things to women too, but not as much. And children? Never.
In fact, did a real nice thing for one once. Maybe something I’m gonna die for.
He didn’t have any time to waste, and with that he kicked back into an outright jog, made even more uncoordinated because of his oversized shoes. If Belsport had come under new management and they wanted to talk to him then he simply had to oblige, ignoring the danger he was in. It was likely they just heard that he was a high quality thug.
Motivator, not thug.
Normally that would make him smile. He’d remembered one of the Tals saying that to him, a real short, hook nosed one, back when he was still Garyk.
“Garyk, torture sounds so unpleasant. Motivating. You’re motivating them to pay us back the money that we’re rightfully owed. After all, we didn’t force him to take that money, kef, we loaned it to him at fair market rates. It’s just a voluntary transaction, kef, we’re just making sure that we get back what’s ours.” It had been spoken by one of the whiniest voices he’d ever heard, and then all the Tals had laughed per usual, as if there was something hilarious said. Like there was some secret joke that they were all in on. He’d laughed too, although, per usual, he’d had this vague feeling that they were laughing at him.
Kef, it’s their name for the non-Tals. They have others.
Toby had learned from experience that tracking people down by description was always harder than you thought, something that gave him hope as he scurried down Saint Bonnet lane. He’d get some slumlord tell him to collect from some grey haired one armed consetta addict in the slums by The Prancing Pony Inn. He’d go and shake him down, laughing off his claims to have paid in advance, only to find out at the end of the day that it was the wrong beggar, and just across the road was the right one. Then he’d be standing there, his knuckles bruised and bloodied, dealing with the greatest injustice of all, not being paid for his labour. An experience he’d had more than once.
But even still…
There ain’t that many thugs with half their faces burned off. More than none, but less than I’d like.
He’d gotten his face covered with tattoos in the decade since stealing from them, and for all he knew that was good enough disguise. After all, it’s not like anyone knew he ended up here. And besides, it didn’t matter to him who ran what in the underworld. What mattered to Toby was Toby. Give him some money and he’ll do what needs to be done.
He didn’t need to pretend to himself that the streets of Belport weren’t suddenly more dangerous than before now that his old employers had arrived again. But they were less dangerous now that he had arrived on time, or almost arrived, with the torchlit SouthEastern docks – working all night long – up no more than a few hundred feet ahead. The familiar clock under The One Eyed Beauty Inn, reading out a time two minutes early. And say one thing about the Belsport authorities, but they keep good time.
Well look at that. He wiped some of the sweat off his forehead, although his shirt was a lost cause. Worried over nothing Toby.
It was with that thought that he felt a small stab through his lower back, and knew instantly he was dead. There was no denial, no disbelief. Toby’s response surprised even him, instantly turning around and chasing a small hooded figure back up Saint Bonnet lane, the poisonous dart still lodged in his back.
No, this is not the end of the prologue. Yes, we’re only about halfway done (at best). But oh my goodness I have to stop. I’ve been working on this for the entirety of Monday, minus watching Canada-Slovakia World Juniors while eating dinner, and I just have to tap out here. I’ll haven’t really edited it properly either, so I apologize if this is all over the place, but I’m so tired I can barely stay awake and it’s only 10. We have to wrap up here. Tomorrow we’ll abruptly shove the rest of it out.