26 Mar Foul And Fair: Is Whispering Nothing? Chapter 1
I’m so late my hands are shaking. I’m going to lose my job. They’re going to be waiting at the door when I walk into Momma Ruby’s, and they’re going to fire me, and then I’m done. I’ll lose my room, and starve, and I won’t be able to afford my medicine.
“The Whisperer Awaits a Sacrifice.”
No. No, it’s going to be okay, Ian. I take a deep breath and break open the seal on today’s vial, almost dropping the whole thing in the basin as I do. My hands are shaking—I’ve got to calm down. I grip the edge of the basin with one hand to steady myself, because hurrying will only make it worse.
I’m trying to remember who’s running the floor tonight, try to assure myself it’s someone who will understand. Anyone but Ruby. Carefully, with my whole fist like I’m a child, I dump the foul-tasting medicine into my mouth, close my eyes, and swallow. My hands are so numb they feel like they belong to someone else. I try to chase the thing down with a dipper of water, but my nerves are showing again, and I dump it all over my shirt. There’s no time to change, I’m already screwed.
So I lose my composure for a second, throw the empty vial down into the sink, and it shatters in there because I don’t think anything through ever. I’m halfway out of the room by then anyways, thinking about the extra charge for a new vial, and how much harder it’s going to be to afford to stay medicated after I lose my job. No time to dwell on it, got to get moving. I rush over to my door, pop my hat on my head, and grab my bag off the floor under the mail slot. A letter falls off the top of it. That’s strange. Seeing the paper sitting on my floor stops me dead. The wax seal is ornate—like a big shield with flowers or something, and I don’t recognize it. Shields have connotations—the kind of authority I’ve got a history with—and nobody sends me letters. I haven’t seen a symbol like this on any member of the Watch…but would I have noticed? No time to process it now, I have to get to work or my life is over.
I grab the letter and run out the door, barely remember to pull it shut behind me, then rush my way down the hall past all the other rooms in the hostel, swing around the corner and take the stairs at a run, only pausing to jump the broken one so I don’t get a foot caught there and break my face open. That’d be just like me, wouldn’t it? After that I jump again—over the last four stairs—and practically throw myself out of the flimsy, spring-loaded front door. It’s cold outside. Winter in Gwyth is the kind of winter that kills, and I was foolish enough to forget my coat. My shirt is wet from the collar to the stomach, but it’s less of a problem than it should be because my heart is pounding. Mistakes on mistakes on mistakes, rolling down the side of a mountain. My blood is keeping me warm and I won’t get sick through sheer force of will. I’m being optimistic. Dr. Plutony says it’s important to be optimistic.
There isn’t much traffic out this time of day—half the town has gone off to war and almost everyone who’s left is scrambling to cover the jobs the soldiers have left behind or worn to the bone from covering for so long, so I don’t have to dodge too many carts to run across the road and down the next rutted lane. The mud’s not too bad today, even if the ground never seems to dry, it’s frozen nearly solid and not ripping my poorly tied boots off my feet. But the cold wind is turning that patch of water on my front into a patch of ice, and it’s starting to burn my skin. There’s good and bad. I’ve got a job and I’m not in the war, I’m in control and I’m not dead. I’m almost at work, and everything is going to be okay. I can get everything done in plenty of time and there is no reason to fire me. I have this under control, and I’m not going to panic.
There’s that letter I’ve got crumpled up in my left hand, squeezing it tightly enough that my fingers are hurting my palm and I’m trying not to think about what that shield seal means. That’s what’s throwing me off. It seems like it has to be something important or official or from someone rich—poor people seal envelopes with wax blobs, not pictures of shields. My hands have gone from numb to hurting, and I tell myself a joke. Maybe it’s from my sister. Maybe Ceana’s rich now, and I don’t have to worry about getting fired. I’m a funny guy.
It’s just a few more strides to round the corner onto the main drag and Momma Ruby’s is standing there, across the way and down two blocks. The lanterns are already up inside, even though we’ve still got some sun, and that’s a bad sign. When I open, I light the lanterns—if someone else lit them, they noticed I didn’t light them, and they made a point of lighting them early enough to emphasize the fact that they noticed that I wasn’t there to light them and they’re already doing my job for me for the night in anticipation of firing me when I finally show up.
“The Whisperer Awaits a Sacrifice. All this can go away.”
That’s not smart. It’s not reasonable. That’s what I have to look out for. Making too many assumptions, being paranoid, assuming the worst when there’s reason to be optimistic. The whispers aren’t there to help me, they’re there to be ignored and they’re easy to ignore. So I pinch myself.
Clearly, I’m just getting agitated because I’ve forgotten to take my medicine. I step out of the street and lean against the outside wall of the post office, then drop my bag on the ground and sift through it for a vial. I should still have a few…found it. I drag out the little vial, pop the seal and throw back the awful-tasting contents in a single gulp. The liquid feels warm compared to the ice-cold water on my shirt. The water I spilled on myself after I took my medicine. Damnit. Too late to fix it, I assume. I shove the stopper, the empty vial, and the letter in my bag and then complete the trip to Momma Ruby’s at a slower pace. The bitter taste lingers in my mouth as a reminder this time.
The door isn’t locked, and no one’s out on the main floor at all right now, so they won’t know exactly when I’ve arrived. Good. Great—I’m going to focus and do good work and everything is going to be okay, and I’m going to talk to Dr. Plutony in the morning and everything is going to be fine. I can imagine myself explaining all of this then, and we laugh about it, and he’s proud of me for keeping control. A younger Ian might have spiraled out of control. I never lose control anymore.
I pinch myself again. Harder, just in case.
We don’t open for maybe half an hour and that’s plenty of time to get the place ready as long as I’m focused. I jog around to the closet tucked into the wall of this hidden nook behind the bar and throw my bag up on a high shelf there, hang my hat on a pet on the inside of the door, and then grab a broom and get to work. The sound of straw on wood and the repetitive motion back and forth across the floor absorbs my attention for a while. It’s nice to have something to do with my hands.
I’ve got the lobby mostly free of last night’s debris when the first person emerges from the kitchen and actually notices me—it’s Annie, though. I didn’t realize she was singing tonight. There’s going to be a crowd. I’m not sure if that’s good or worse—I’m not sure, yet, if I’m going to be able to handle a crowd. More work, certainly. But I get to hear her sing. I don’t even need to try to be optimistic about that. She glances in my direction and I avert my eyes because she’s not looking for me and I’m busy taking down the chairs and moving the tables into position. And paying attention to my breathing, not to her. Trying to make it clear by the direction I’m facing and the level of attention I’m paying to my work that I’m not looking at her and I’m not thinking about her and I’m not creepy. There’s a noise from over by the bar, loud enough to draw my attention, and Annie is gone. A second later, Cade is standing in the doorway, looking at me. Looking at me like I’m fired, or he wants me dead. Not coming over to talk, though. I see you. I’m doing my job. Everything is fine.
They let me set things up, so I set things up. They’ll let me clean after we open, because I’m the only one here who cleans and there’s going to be a crowd. Momma Ruby’s is a respectable establishment, and part of that reputation is the fact that we keep the lobby and the tables clean. And that no one needs to think about me for very long, if it can be helped. That’s the trick, really—I just keep moving, stay invisible, and then I’ll get to listen to Annie of DuPont and I’ll handle my shift well and it’ll be nice and busy, and I won’t have to think about that letter and whatever it holds.
But I just did. That was a big mistake—now it’s stuck in my head, and I can’t distract myself. I finish setting the dining room up and take care of some cleaning in the back all before the first customers arrive for the night, even though I was late. Until a few minutes ago, I was working at peak capacity. Not that it’s challenging work…but I don’t know. Satisfaction of a job well done, I guess—it’s nice to be good at something, especially when I started the night fired in my head. But now I’ve got a minute and there’s no one around to watch me and my feet carry me around to the little room behind the bar where I can’t be seen unless you’re looking for me. I haul my bag down off the shelf and find the letter, then crack the seal in half, right across the shield.
The paper inside is very thin and smaller than a regular piece, and it has this odd texture to it like it’s abrading my fingers. Just two sentences and a signature, along with a hand-drawn copy of that shield-with-flowers. I read it once and I read it wrong because I’m stressed out and I took too much medicine and I’m not great with reading and I’m just expecting the worst. So I read it again and now it’s clear that I’m hallucinating and this piece of paper isn’t real or doesn’t say what I think it’s saying. I crumple the stupid thing up, then flatten it out and read it again because how is this possible—and then I shove it back in my back and stuff the bag in on the shelf as far back as it can go, like that’s going to do anything, then close up the closet and rush back to the floor, blood pounding in my ears.
Lumy—I guess she’s the waitress tonight—rushes by me, tells me to do something in an impatient voice and I’m too wrapped up in my thoughts to really catch it and that’s just going to make things worse for me. I have to work and focus and not get fired and there’s no way I’m going to the war. We’re supposed to be winning. People always say we’re winning, that we’ve been winning for years, so we can’t possibly need someone like me. I pinch myself and it doesn’t help. I’m not built to be a soldier, everyone knows I can’t be a soldier, and this is a mistake or my imagination and anyways we can fix it. We can. Who’s we? It’s just me. I need to get my head straight and not think about this and pretend it never happened. I’m not going to the war. Portus doesn’t need someone like me.
Unless they’re desperate. I mean. We could be losing.
Here’s a new thing to fixate on as I rush around the floor, cleaning and clearing and smiling at the customers and pretending like I’m a functioning person who can communicate with them on anything but the most basic levels. Lumy and Flower the bartender are clearly annoyed with me—every time I happen to catch their gazes, I get reproachful looks and pointed gestures towards something I’ve forgotten, but this is all completely normal. I’m at the bottom of the hierarchy here. They tell me what to do and I do it—and I’m doing it—and they think I’m doing a bad job no matter how well I do. Doesn’t matter, I’m going as fast as I can, and even if it’s a busy night I’m on top of things. The war can wait until later, I’ve hit a groove. Feels good in a way.
Hours pass. I’m more than focused. Don’t need help, don’t need to be yelled at, not screwing anything up or getting myself any more fired than I already was, and I don’t need to stop to throw up behind the building because I’m supposed to go to war even if my stomach really, really wants me to. The band is bringing in their stuff now—I already cleared out the corner of the floor for them to set up—so a nice distraction is coming. Today isn’t so horrible. Cade hasn’t even bothered to track me down and scream in my face. I head out behind the building to dump my bucket and refill it from the well, but as I come through the doorway, I plow into something that gives, and the grime-filled bucket dumps all over Lumy. Who is now on the floor. Because I’ve knocked her down.
Numbness spreads through my limbs and my jaw as I stare down at her, and I can’t react to help her up or dry her off or do anything but stare at her like I’ve just killed someone. She grabs the door frame and pulls herself up, staring at me with intense hatred. I’m still trying to just muster an apology when she shoves by me saying “Just get away from me,” and disappears into the kitchen somewhere. My heart is pounding in my neck but now that she’s gone, at least, I’m not paralyzed. Hell of a soldier I’ll make—scared to death of helping someone up. I can taste bile and my pants are wet below the knees—didn’t even notice before—and there are three gallons of dirty, soapy water sinking between the stones and now I’m grabbing whatever absorbent thing I can find to try to mitigate the slipperiness. And then a shadow looms over me. A shiver runs down my spine.
“The Whisperer Awaits a Sacrifice.” It’s quiet and it’s not real but I hear it all the same. There’s no Whisperer. I need to be reasonable. It’s always just been me. It’s Cade’s real voice that comes out from behind me, though.
“You know you’re killing me, right?”
This, at least, I can respond to. He doesn’t even sound all that mad, just exasperated. Annie has started out in the lobby and I’m missing it but the sound is reverberating through the stones below me and it helps. Gods, that voice. I’m not fired yet. I’ve still got a chance. “I’m sorry, it was completely my fault. I wasn’t looking where I was going and I just kept walking—can you tell Lumy I’m sorry? I couldn’t….”
“Shut up for a second,” he says, much angrier than a second ago, and I finally turn and look at him. His face is red. “I know what happened, and it’s unacceptable. I’ve got a full house out there and my waitress is off the floor, looking for a change of clothes. You’re in here having one of your self-pity attacks, leaving Flower to cover the whole tavern. He wants me to fire you, call the Watch to take you away, or let him beat the hell out of you. They’re all compelling arguments. This can’t keep happening. Get yourself under control. This is not a hard job, and you’re out of second chances.”
Right. Of course. He walks away without giving me a chance to explain, but I’m in no state to talk to anyone. Funny thing is, I should feel better: I’m not fired. I was late, I covered Lumy in dirt water, Annie is playing, and I’m not fired. Everything is fine. My tongue is too big, though, it’s overfilling my mouth and pushing into my throat, and I can barely get air around it. A side effect of the extra dose, or the nerves, or that letter that’s sitting in my bag and refusing to change, waiting for me to go back over and confirm it’s real again. I don’t know. Maybe I’m better off in the war. Maybe I’ll die there. Maybe something’s going horribly wrong, and I’m dying right now. I’ll talk to Dr. Plutony in the morning. We’ll sort this out, and I won’t die. He’ll know what to do.