Sunlight streaked in through the warped and slightly dirty window, illuminating a handful of thin, patched blankets covering an indistinct shape. Somewhere close by, a bell rang out, pealing through the early morning quiet, and the muffled figure groaned.
Ding dong dong, ding dong dong…
Reluctantly pushing the blankets back, Shoreditch blinked into the sunlight, somewhat distorted by the thick glass of his window. Another dawn, another day – maybe today would be the one. He stayed there for a few moments, thinking about it, a smile crossing his face. Yes, maybe today, he’d find that chance. He took every opportunity he could; it was only a matter of time. Today would be his lucky day, or maybe tomorrow; one of them would work out.
The blankets fell away as he sat up, running a hand through untidy black hair in a vague attempt to smooth it back after the night’s sleep. For all his high hopes, his room was shockingly bare, a semi-rented attic space with rough floorboards, what little furniture there was crude and unvarnished. It didn’t dampen his spirits. Shoreditch never let much get him down for long, and his lodgings, such as they were, certainly weren’t about to start. He got up and stretched instead, crossing to wash his face in the bucket of slightly stale water over in the corner of the room. The rickety chair it stood on wobbled alarmingly, but he ignored it, shaking his hands off.
His wardrobe was a battered, dented affair that would probably have been better replaced by a shipping crate. One door hung half open, the top hinge broken and the cheap wood behind it splintered after several attempts to screw it back in had ended in failure. Shoreditch hadn’t risked trying to open the other in quite some time, but given that he only owned four sets of clothes, no more than three of them ever serviceable at any one time, it didn’t really make much difference. Yesterday’s definitely weren’t wearable until he could get them washed again, which left him with two to choose from.
The off-white shirt hung more than a little loose, and his belt had a hole poked in it quite far away from the original ones. Shoreditch’s relatively slight build helped to disguise just how thin he really was, and his irrepressible energy and determination hid the hollowness of his cheeks, but he could have been a slightly over-age chimneysweep. With a bit of soot, he’d still look like one.
Shrugging on his battered coat over shirt and vest, he left the room, whistling cheerfully, pulling the door shut behind him to stop the draughts from making matters inside any worse. Though he had the key, he didn’t lock it. Why bother, when there was nothing to steal? If he left it, he might even find that Mrs. Clement had come in to tidy, as she sometimes did. In lieu of rent, he did odd jobs for the Clements wherever they needed him, knowing without ever admitting to himself the real reason that they let him stay. His work was good, but there wasn’t enough money around to pay him enough to cover rent, or for that matter even enough for him to do. Mr. and Mrs. Clement simply felt sorry for him.
The narrow staircase down led directly into the kitchen. Mrs. Clement tended a small pot at the hearth, looking over her shoulder at the sound of footsteps and the cheerful tune that went with them.
“Good morning, ma’am.”
Her face crinkled into a smile. “Good morning, young Shoreditch. There’s half a bowl of porridge still to be eaten if you want to do a poor woman a favour. Waste not, want not, you know.”
Shoreditch laughed. “Thank you kindly, ma’am!” Breakfast, for him, was a rather uncertain affair, and more often than not ended up being had in the afternoon. “Good figures for the last month, then?” Even as he spoke, he swiped a wooden bowl neatly from the counter on the way over, flipping a spoon that had been sticking out slightly into his free hand before dropping it into the bowl. Mrs. Clement chuckled at his easy antics.
“Not too bad,” she told him. “Enough to lay up a little. We’ll keep on getting by for a while yet.”
Shoreditch picked up a dirty towel and used it to hold the pot as he scooped out its contents, scraping the sides to knock off the burnt pieces and add them to his bowl as well. “That’s good!” He retreated to perch on a stool, eating just slowly enough to savour the simple, plain food. “I have a good feeling about today. Maybe something will pay off.”
Mrs. Clement made sure he was looking at the porridge, and not her, before she shook her head. Not a trace of scepticism entered her voice as she spoke. “That would be good, wouldn’t it? Ah, but then we’d have to manage without you, and where would we be then?”
Shoreditch smiled. “Don’t worry about that. Before I leave, I’ll see to it you both live like kings!” He waved his spoon in grand illustration. “When I’m rich, the first thing I’ll do is pay you a rent fit for a lord.”
Despite herself, she smiled. Shoreditch didn’t even have to try in order to win her over. His boundless optimism never seemed so much as dented by the time spent searching fruitlessly for the golden chance of his dreams. She wasn’t sure he even knew what despair was, though goodness knew he had reason to.
“Aye, I’d like to see that, my boy,” she agreed.
“You will,” he told her boldly, scraping the last remnants of porridge from his bowl. “Soon, I’m sure of it!” Another mouthful, and he was done, hopping back off the stool and dumping bowl and spoon in the sink. “I’ll wash up and sweep around the stall, unless anything else needs doing?”
“No, nothing else,” Mrs. Clement told him. “You take care of yourself out there today.”
“I always do.”
She left the room as he took the pot from the hearth’s dying fire, protecting his hands again with the towel and pumping cold water into it. The heated metal would warm it up enough to get the washing up done, and after a brief pause, he dropped both bowl and spoon in as well. The scruffy dishrag had been stretched out on the sill to dry from when the Clements had eaten their own breakfast not long before. Shoreditch hummed to himself as he scrubbed the faint traces of his meal from bowl, spoon, and pot. The day was starting out well already!
Leaving everything upside-down to dry, he let himself out of the back door and into the little lane that ran parallel to the main road. The town bell rang again, chiming the quarter-hour, as he hurried around and down the narrow alley that would take him out into the market.
“Oranges and lemons! Fresh and ripe!”
Shoreditch smiled again as he skidded around the corner, emerging behind the bakery stall but already able to hear Mr. Clement calling out amidst the bustle. The grocer had a decent trade, and sometimes got in shipments of more exotic fruits from the river traders.
“Get your oranges today!” His voice dropped abruptly to conversational volume as Shoreditch jogged around to the back of the stall. “Morning, boy. Looking bright as ever, aren’t you?”
He grinned. “It’s going to be a good day today! I can feel it.” Picking up the broom in his left hand, he tossed it into the right. “Those oranges look good.”
Mr. Clement chuckled. “They do, don’t they? I’m hoping for another good day today myself.”
“You’ll have it,” Shoreditch told him confidently, already starting to brush away the night’s accumulation of leaves and dust from around the stall. Every morning, he came out to keep it clean, smartening up the place for the day to help the Clements attract customers. He was privately convinced it made it look much more inviting than some of the others, who often didn’t bother to sweep up the accumulated debris for days.
People came and went around him as he scratched stubborn dirt from the gaps in the cobbles. Some bought a few vegetables from the grocer, others simply passed by. The wind teased and mocked, gently sweeping a spiral of leaves from the pile he’d built, but he captured it and sent it back with a few well-aimed flicks, eventually dumping the whole lot into a half-barrel that stood beside the unused front door.
“All done!” he called, leaning on the broom. Mr. Clement looked around the stall before turning to him.
“Good work as always, boy. Going to stay here and help with the stall today?”
Shoreditch shook his head with a smile. “I’m going to see if I can find more work. Remember I said I felt good about today?”
Keeping it hidden, Mr. Clement sighed. Shoreditch said that just about every day, but he was never in luck for long. There simply weren’t many opportunities in such a quiet town, even fewer for someone with his drive and determination. He wouldn’t be content working a simple job every day simply to put bread on the table, and everyone in town knew it. As for the handful of rumours that were sometimes whispered around town, of strange voyages on the river barges, illicit goods distributed under cover of night… for that, the boy was too moral. It left him with almost no avenue of escape, and yet still he dreamed.
As always, Shoreditch ignored the imperfectly concealed sigh. Putting the broom back into its place, he set off into the market with a jaunty wave of farewell, making his way around knots of people with ease. If the inn had a lot of customers, there’d probably be a little work for him there, and he might hear of anything new starting up besides.
A bell rang to mark the hour as he turned a corner, leaving the stalls behind. The route was so well-worn in his memory that he didn’t even have to pay attention to it, daydreaming as he walked along – until a voice spoke his name from almost next to him, its owner stepping out of a side street.
“You owe me five farthings, Shoreditch. Just how long is it going to take you to pay up?”
Startled, Shoreditch jumped, spinning to face the speaker and coming practically face to face with Martin. Like many people in town, they’d known each other vaguely since they were young, and had even once been friends. But Martin had been born into what was at least slightly more fortunate circumstances, and the entire town agreed he now clung to what wealth he had grimly, regardless of the cost to others.
Martin’s clothes were fine, but looked second-hand, washed to the point of being threadbare. He seemed strained, even for him. “That’s right, unless you owe anyone else money. I need that back now, Shoreditch.”
Shoreditch spread his hands in genuine helplessness. “I don’t have it.” He pulled out his battered wallet, permanently all but empty, and tipped a single coin into his hand. “This is all I’ve got.”
“One farthing,” Martin said scornfully, snatching it – and Shoreditch’s only chance of getting another meal if he couldn’t find work – from his hand. “That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?” He tucked it away with a sharp, angry motion before jerking forward and gripping the shorter man’s clothing, lifting him to his toes. Shoreditch gasped in sheer surprise, gazing into Martin’s wild, almost frightened eyes. “You’d better get that money!”
The church bell rang again as he abruptly let go, Shoreditch falling back to his feet and stumbling slightly to one side, his balance thrown and even his confidence slightly shaken.
“What’s your problem, Martin?”
Martin didn’t reply, and a moment later, just as he was about to ask again, a heavy hand landed on Shoreditch’s shoulder. He jumped, startled, and twisted to look over his shoulder, seeing first the work-roughened hand, then the dark blue sleeve, and finally the dome-helmeted head of a policeman. Two policemen.
“When will you pay me?” questioned the taller one, the one with his hand on Shoreditch’s shoulder. “I think that’s what he was asking you, wasn’t it?”
Shoreditch relaxed slightly, though he also drooped a little. What were they doing here? Or at least, why were they bothering to pay attention to him, now of all times? Couldn’t they have picked a better moment?
“Something like that,” he admitted, still twisted awkwardly. “It’s all right. I’ll-”
“It’s not all right!” Martin snapped. “If you don’t have the money by the end of the day, I -” He controlled himself with visible effort. “I’ll have it out of you one way or another, Shoreditch. I mean it.”
Shoreditch’s jaw dropped as the ‘one way or another’ registered. “You called them? O-over five farthings?” Behind him, the two coppers looked at one another and shook their heads with almost identical expressions of boredom and mild disbelief.
“It’s not just five farthings. It’s everything I’ve ever lent you and had to write off, everything you owe.” There was almost a note of pleading in his voice, and Shoreditch couldn’t work out why. Shouldn’t he be the one pleading? He and Martin hadn’t been friends for several years, but they didn’t hate each other. Why was he doing this? “Your time’s up. I’ve got to have it back.”
Faced with the impossible demand, Shoreditch did the only thing he could.
“All right. Just give me a little more time – I’ll have it for you within the week.” He swallowed. Martin had lent or outright given him small sums of money over the years when they were children, and told Shoreditch whatever debt was between them was written off when he’d inherited his father’s small wealth and slightly run-down house and business three years ago. Since then they’d drifted further apart, but he’d never dreamed this would happen. He didn’t even know how much Martin was asking for. “You know me, Martin, I’ll find a way.”
Martin gave him a look as though he’d just stepped in something distasteful, and Shoreditch pulled back slightly, though the big policeman’s hand made it rather hard to really go anywhere.
“This one time, you’d better be true to those big promises of yours,” Martin said. “I mean it.”
The two policemen looked at each other again, then over Shoreditch to Martin. “You’re giving him one last chance, then?” asked the shorter of them. For the life of him, Shoreditch couldn’t remember his name.
“I suppose,” Martin said, not meeting Shoreditch’s eyes. “But I’ll press the claim if he doesn’t meet it.”
Despite himself, Shoreditch’s heart sank. He didn’t think even selling the furniture in his room, such as it was – most of it would only be good for firewood, and in any case it wasn’t even really his – would pay off that debt. Nor was there any work in town that he knew of that would pay enough, even if he worked without sleep. If there had been, he’d have taken it long ago.
“Don’t worry about it, Martin. I’ll make it.”
“Of course you will,” said the big policeman, letting go of his shoulder. “And the Mayor’s favourite hunting dog will grow a nice pair of wings, I’ve no doubt. Be off with you, boy, we’ll be seeing you again in a few days.”
Though even he had doubts about how he was ever going to be able to pay in time, Shoreditch bristled at that. He held his tongue, however, as the coppers left, and Martin gave him a single, sharp nod before turning away, leaving him alone. Though he was still surrounded by the bustle of a busy day, for a moment he felt small and isolated, caught in a trap he had never seen coming. What was he going to do?
Taking a deep breath, Shoreditch held it for a moment before letting it out again, shaking his head to clear it. Standing around was no way to deal with any problems, let alone this one: he had to keep moving. He turned away from the side street and kept walking along the busy thoroughfare, a new urgency to his step and, faint but there, a new hint of worry in his eyes. He might still get work at the inn, and more importantly, there was an outside chance that he might hear of some elsewhere.
The old, sun-faded sign hanging above the inn’s door bore a rather unrealistic picture of a cat playing a fiddle, an upturned top hat before it to catch any change given by passers-by. In the corners, a couple of mice had been painted, watching without daring to get any closer. Shoreditch barely even glanced at it as he entered, though he usually at least spared the cat a smile. He felt a faint kinship with the imaginary creature, doing the impossible as it was, reaching beyond the position of barn mouser it had doubtless been born to in the face of all opposition.
The cracked and unpainted door creaked open beneath his hand, and he stepped into the musty gloom, smelling as it always did of spilled ale and stale smoke. A group of river traders had pulled several central tables together and sat around them, laughing and talking to one another in their incomprehensible dialect that was practically a descendant language of its own. Hearing it always made him curious: he’d never known a trader who didn’t have a fair command of the local dialect, which seemed to mean they were deliberately keeping secrets as they spoke amongst themselves, a tiny and temporary country of their own within his ever-stable hometown. But they wouldn’t help him, and his eyes flitted further afield. In one corner, three of the more prominent local farmers had gathered to trade tales of ailing sheep amidst a cloud of blue-tinged pipe smoke; further along the same wall, two carpenters were gesturing animatedly as they discussed something with the stonemason and his three apprentices. Shoreditch mentally noted down the possibility of building work in the near future, though he knew it wouldn’t pay well. Without a charitable gesture on the part of whoever hired him, he’d have to take the job for lower hourly pay than almost anyone else, unable to handle the heavy loads that other, stronger men could carry. There wasn’t enough money around in most projects for anyone to make exceptions for him, making it a cycle that fed viciously back on itself, a sharp downward spiral.
He turned, slowly, looking around to the other side of the room, where a couple of labourers only slightly better off than himself played a card game with the head gamekeeper and the butcher’s son, the stakes between them no more than a collection of pebbles. There’d be no help there, either. His quiet sigh seemed to hang for a moment in the stale air as he stepped forward, forcing himself to lift his head with determined optimism. There was a way, there had to be.
“Hey, Shoreditch,” the innkeeper, Mr. Rill, greeted him, leaning idly against the countertop. “Scrounging again, are we?”
“I don’t scrounge,” Shoreditch muttered. On a better day, he might have turned around and walked away at that, but on this one he had no choice. Walking up to the counter, he rested his own elbows on it with a sigh. “Heard of any work recently?”
“Same as always, boy,” came the response, affable enough, but world-weary. “You can wash the dishes if you really want a free meal.”
For once, Shoreditch shook his head. “I’d rather have the price of the food.” At least, he thought, he’d got one meal in the day. That would have to be enough.
The innkeeper’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “All right, which is it – are you in trouble, or up to something again?”
“Trouble,” Shoreditch admitted reluctantly, keeping his voice down. “I’ve got to find work, quickly. Please, if there’s anything going, tell me.” It hurt his pride to beg, but if he once got into the debtors’ gaol, he’d have an even harder time getting by when he got out – if he did at all. Mr. Rill looked at him thoughtfully, tapping a finger against his chin, and Shoreditch stifled the urge to tell him to hurry up.
“I do hear there’s going to be the new wing for the town hall going up soon enough,” he said slowly, looking over to where the stonemason sat. “And shearing’s about coming around, if the sheep aren’t sick with something again. I suppose there’s always the trapping work, too. What’ve you gone and got yourself into anyway, boy? Gambling with the rivermen?”
Shoreditch shook his head emphatically. “No!” he hissed, keeping his voice down to keep the traders at their table behind him from hearing the vehemence in the answer. “No, I… I’m going to pay Martin back. For everything.”
“That young skinflint? He’s turned into the worst miser this town’s ever seen, hasn’t he? He get tired of waiting for… what was it you always used to say?”
“When I grow rich,” Shoreditch said sourly as a bell rang in the distance. “Yes, he did, and I don’t need-” He cut himself off from saying he didn’t need a lecture. Angering the innkeeper now would ruin what little chance he had, he knew that from bitter experience. For once, he swallowed his pride, though it burned to do so. “…I don’t know why. But I need to pay him back, right now.”
The innkeeper watched him evaluatingly as the moments stretched out into silence. Shoreditch shifted, uncomfortable. He never let himself seem desperate, never let himself believe it, but he was coming painfully close. The innkeeper saw it in his eyes, and he knew how he’d see it, as the poor boy seeing sense at last. Inwardly, he promised himself: no, never that. He wasn’t going to accept the lot he’d been given, not now, not ever. It was just one more setback, that was all.
“Fine, boy,” Mr. Rill said suddenly. “Clean out the kitchen, top to bottom. I’d say that’s enough work for a meal and a few pence into the bargain, long as nothing gets broke.”
The whole kitchen? Shoreditch thought. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t done it before, but it was a big job, and not helpful if he wanted to have a chance of finding any other work in the day. For once, though, he didn’t see that he had any real choice.
“All right. I’ll get started.”
He let himself through behind the bar, and pulled on the warped door that led through to the kitchen. The heat and moisture from it meant that door suffered more than most, and it stuck at first, forcing him to yank it rather harder than he’d expected. The kitchen before him was empty, somewhat to his surprise, but loaves of fresh bread were cooling on the racks and there were two pots keeping warm atop the oven. The cook must have stepped out to fetch something. Having fewer people around made his task easier, at least. Looking at the dirty floor, the grease-spotted range and blackened pans, he held back a sigh. There was nothing for it but to get started…
As he’d thought, it wasn’t long before the cook came back, carrying two buckets from the well. She greeted him with a nod and a brisk hello, then all but ignored him, letting him work around her as she continued about the business of preparing food to suit the day’s demands, periodically thumping down yet more greasy, crusted pots and pans to replace the handful he’d managed to clean. While he certainly didn’t begrudge them the business, he couldn’t help but wish it involved less mess.
By the time he was done, the kitchen was practically spotless – apart from the few things the cook was still using – and the dinnertime rush had come and gone. He tried his hardest to ignore the smells of fresh-cooked food, something he was all too used to. This time, at least, he’d be getting some of the leftovers. Leaning on the edge of the sink, he looked out of the window and sighed. The evening was already drawing in, light turning golden, shadows growing ever longer as the sky dimmed. The day was all but over, something only reinforced by the sounds of the town bell ringing again to mark the passage of another hour.
“One day I’ll get out of here…”
“When will that be?” asked a light voice from behind him. Startled, Shoreditch whirled, finding himself looking into the laughing blue eyes of the innkeeper’s daughter, Stepney. She smiled, brushing her hands off on her apron and walking over to lean on the counter beside him. Relaxing somewhat, he turned to follow her movements.
“Even you’re asking me that?”
Stepney frowned. “That’s not like you. Is something wrong? Father said you were in trouble… I didn’t think he really meant it.”
Shoreditch straightened. “I’m not in trouble, Stepney, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” she pressed. “You don’t sound fine, and Father gave you the whole kitchen to do, didn’t he? What’s going on?”
He shook his head, turning away to look out of the window. “It’s just Martin. That’s all.”
“Just Martin?” In his peripheral vision, he saw her frown again.
Shoreditch sighed. “I owe him, Step. You know that. It’s time I paid him back.”
“You mean Martin, of all people, has decided he’s so desperate for money he’s going to try and extort it from you?” Her angry words were well-meant, but poorly chosen, sinking barbs into his already battered confidence and rousing a spark of anger. Not even she believed in him. “Why, I… I don’t know why we were ever friends with him at all!”
“I owe a lot of people,” was all Shoreditch said, a little flatly. “Maybe it’s about time I started paying them off. I’ll do it, you’ll see.”
“Oh, Shoreditch…” She sighed, recognising his reaction and knowing she’d made a mistake. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Find me a job?” he suggested dryly, raising his eyebrows a little. Stepney fidgeted with her apron, looking down.
“I promise I’ll tell you if I hear anything. You know I always do. But there’s nothing, there’s really not.”
“I know,” he said quietly, and shook his head. That train of thought was one he couldn’t follow. All he had to do was keep going, keep searching; he’d find something. There was always something, would always be a way. With more effort than usual, he forced the cheer back into his voice. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll find something. Say, do you think this place is done yet?”
“Oh!” Stepney coloured slightly, reminded. “Yes, that’s what Father sent me in here for. He told me if you were done, I should give you this and you could grab whatever was still out.” Reaching into her apron pocket, she took out a scant handful of ha’pennies and farthings, brushing against Shoreditch’s hand as he gave him them, careful not to drop any. His practised eye counted a total of three and a half pence in the swift glance that was all he could give it before tucking them away. Any longer might suggest he didn’t trust Stepney or her father to be fair, and that would have been both untrue and unkind, however desperate he was. It was several times the five farthings Martin had lent him a few weeks before, but it wouldn’t be anything like enough to pay off whatever it was his old friend felt he was owed. Asking Martin for money had been an act of something close to desperation as it was; there was almost no-one else left in the village to whom he could in good conscience go to. One way or another, he owed a lot of people, whether in coin, goodwill, or both. Even if he could, he wasn’t prepared to press them any further.
“Thanks, Stepney.” Despite it all, a genuine smile lit on his face.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said, smiling back. “And take whatever you want. Father said he’d told Auntie to expect a good number of people today, so she cooked a little more than usual.”
Invisibly, Shoreditch bit the inside of his lip. It was a normal day, he knew it and so did the innkeeper. In asking the cook to do a little more, he was tacitly helping Shoreditch at least have a decent meal, though he wouldn’t acknowledge it. Grateful for the unspoken generosity, he just nodded, and crossed to where the last of the food was keeping warm, serving himself a good-sized helping on the most chipped plate he could find. Stepney, too, helped herself, less concerned with quite what she got or what she ate it off. She followed him out of the kitchen door and sat beside him on the low back wall, facing into the street as they ate.
“When you leave,” Stepney asked after a while, “where will you go?”
Shoreditch swallowed his mouthful and smiled. It was an old game she played, and one he hadn’t heard in a while: getting him to tell her about the adventures he would have when he one day escaped the confines of the town, set out into the wide world that awaited beyond its familiar boundaries. Perhaps it was an apology for what she’d said before, or perhaps not. He didn’t mind, and didn’t care to examine it too closely.
“Maybe to the city. To see the palace from a distance, so I have a memory of what I’ll be returning to when I present myself before the King.”
“Before the King?” she prompted when he paused to eat.
“Mm. I’ll set out to the edge of the empire, to the uncharted lands. I’ll charter a ship to take me and men to explore with me. Then I’ll return, bearing discoveries like no-one has ever made before.” He grinned. “A thousand wonders no-one else has ever seen.”
“Will you come back here?”
“I’ll have to show everyone what I’ve found, won’t I?”
They talked for a while, expanding on the wonders of Shoreditch’s imaginary lost civilisation, debating which legendary sea captain would make the best commander of his vessel, which heroic explorers of the past and present would be best to take on the expedition, how he would persuade all of those people to accompany him, and how their adventures both on and off the high seas might fare. Time flew by as they talked, engrossed in conversation, as the evening darkened around them with the rapidity of early autumn, aided by the spreading clouds.
“When will you be able to go, do you think?” Stepney asked, as the church bell tolled in the distance, and an approaching pool of light found their feet.
“That, I don’t know,” said another voice, a man’s, and they both jumped, looking into the street almost as one. Before them stood Mayor Bow, holding a lantern in his left hand, a furled umbrella doing duty as a cane in his right, walking his village’s streets in the growing dark.
“Sir!” Shoreditch jumped off the wall, catching the chipped plate as it flew from his lap, and bowed. Stepney slipped down more elegantly, leaving her own on the wall, and curtsied.
“I understand you’re in a spot of trouble, young man.” The mayor’s voice was genial, but his words reminded Shoreditch all too clearly that as far as the town was concerned, here stood the man who could make or break any of them. He hid his sudden nervousness and reflexive defiance with a smile.
“Only a little.” Stepney held out her hand for the other plate as he spoke, and he passed it to her without even thinking about it. “It’s nothing serious. Martin just wants me to pay back some money I owe. I wasn’t expecting him to ask yet, that’s all.” He wasn’t sure how it had come to the mayor’s ears so quickly, but then, the police seemed to have known, and it was certain that nothing flew faster than gossip.
“I’ll see you later, Shoreditch!” Stepney ducked inside, and he twisted to wave to her, getting a wave in response, then turned back to face Mayor Bow.
“You think you’ll be able to pay it back then, son?”
“Of course. I’ll find the money.”
“Working the river, perhaps? They say a riverman can travel far, and it would certainly get you out of this town.”
“Of course not!” Shoreditch snapped, indignant. Was the mayor testing him? “I wouldn’t touch half of what they trade in!”
A slow smile spread across the mayor’s face. “As upright as they say, eh, son? Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about your debt to Martin. I’m sure it will all work out for the best.”
Relieved, Shoreditch found himself smiling back. “Thank you, sir.”
Mayor Bow chuckled. “Oh, don’t thank me. I haven’t even done anything.” He glanced up at the sky. “But I will walk you back. Without this lantern, it’s pitch black, and I expect it to rain soon. No sense in feeling your way in the dark and catching your death into the bargain, is there.”
Shoreditch blinked, surprised. There wasn’t anything he could say other than to thank the mayor again, something that was once more airily waved off before he set out at a brisk pace, surprisingly fast for a man of his age and solid stature. The umbrella tapped lightly against the street, its use more of an affectation than any true need, as far as Shoreditch knew. In a surprisingly short space of time, they’d arrived at the front of the greengrocer’s house, the stall tidied neatly away once more, the lights out. Either the Clements were already asleep, or they were out, perhaps even at the inn he’d been sitting at the back of just a few minutes before. Either way, it didn’t make much difference.
“Thank you, sir,” he said again, bowing a second time.
“Think nothing of it, my boy,” was the response. “I do, after all, have a job to do. Setting an example to the town, and all of that, what? Now, off with you.”
Shoreditch smiled. “Of course, sir.” He turned, walking out of the pool of candlelight and into the alley that led to the back of the building, unfastening the simple latch that kept the kitchen door closed and shutting it again carefully behind him. Well-oiled, the hinges didn’t so much as squeak, and he tiptoed silently across the floor, groping for and finding the candle stubs that sat in one corner. The striker was beside them, and he lit one, using its light to find a saucer to place it on before carrying it upstairs to light his way. The encounter with the mayor, and the conversation with Stepney before it, had left him in good spirits. Somehow, he knew, he’d find a way. Quickly trading his clothes for the much-patched nightshirt he’d left on the floor, he blew out the candle and climbed into bed with a sigh, closing his eyes. It would all work out…
In the lane below, a tall figure detached itself from the thick shadows of the clouded night. It followed Shoreditch’s movements in gently opening the kitchen door, propping it open with a brick left nearby for the purpose. A stray glint of light from a shuttered lantern shone off a wickedly curving blade as it disappeared into the darkness, a large and sharp axe used for far more sinister purposes than chopping wood. As Shoreditch himself had, it made its way up to his room, waiting outside the door for the light beneath to go out, then waiting a further five minutes before slowly, carefully, opening it.
As the first drops of rain began to fall from the blackened sky outside, a few muted sounds escaped the window and drifted down through the lane to the alley, where they met the listening ears of a single person, sheltering beneath an umbrella in the all-concealing dark.
Chop. Chop. Chop.
Oranges and Lemons by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.