An Inauspicious Beginning

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Terribleminds: Write a piece using a famous person from history as the protagonist.

—-

Henry had taken great care to conduct his business at promptly eleven o’clock. He figured the tellers would have finished with their opening duties and not yet begun to think of closing.  After watching the small office carefully, he’d also determined that Wednesday was the optimum day, as the teller was fairly new and the manager had a tendency to start tippling around lunchtime.

Even with his meticulous planning, Henry figured there was only a small chance his ploy would work.  Unless both blind and hard of hearing, there weren’t many people who would mistake him for a woman.  His nose was large, his eyes deep-set under a heavy brow and there wasn’t a delicate feature to be found anywhere.   Henry wasn’t a large man, but he’d been forced to take a dress off the line of the nearby Eldredge house, something that bothered him more than the idea of holding up a bank.  He’d observed Mrs. Eldredge conducting business in town, and she was the only woman he’d seen even close to his size.  Her bonnet didn’t cover as much of his face as he wanted–its only useful function was to hide his hair. Henry was so decidedly unfemale that he felt sure he would be caught.  He could only hope that no one remembered him in the commotion.

The clerk didn’t blink at his request for two dollars in pennies–one delivered in a falsetto that was so patently false, he’d coughed several times in the middle to try and insinuate he was hoarse from some throat illness.

Henry watched the teller, waiting for the exact moment he opened his drawer.  The instant he could see inside the compartment housing the stacks of crisp bills, Henry pressed his advantage.  He bent down and unclasped the large bag at his feet.  It was a miracle already that no one had questioned the bulges moving within.

The bag opened, and despite Henry’s bated breath, nothing happened.  Henry straightened and looked at the teller, attempting nonchalance.  The teller continued counting, unaware of anything amiss.  Henry furtively kicked at the bag.  He’d refused to even consider fitting his enormous feet into women’s shoes, and in that moment he was glad that he’d kept his thick leather boots.

There was a small noise at his feet and so bolstered, he kicked again.  This time he achieved the success he’d anticipated.  Two raccoons, mangy devils that had been plaguing his attic all winter, popped out.  He’d had to trap them and transfer them to the leather bag at risk to his own life and he was gratified to have their cooperation.

As the first one jumped out, angry about his imprisonment and in fear of another kick, Henry let out his best impression of a woman’s blood-curdling scream.  The teller in front of him jumped and Henry screamed again.  The clerk looked over at the manager who’d risen from his own seat to investigate the commotion.

At that very moment, two additional patrons entered the bank: a thin foppish man and his companion, a pale, peaked lady who looked like a stiff wind would take her down.  The two goggled at the scene before them, and Henry took advantage, screaming again.  The fair lady immediately obliged him by contributing to his affected hysterics.  The two continued screaming in a rather satisfying manner while the men did their best to address the issue at hand.  They did not look enthusiastic about the idea of wresting two half-starved raccoons who were unhappy about their previous confinement and even unhappier about all the noise, commotion and people charging at them.

As soon as the teller left his station, and everyone was entirely occupied by the chaos, Henry leaned over the large wooden desk and grabbed a stack of bills left exposed in the drawer.  He glanced back, and as no one was the slightest bit interested in him at the moment, grabbed a second stack and shoved both up the voluminous sleeves of Mrs. Eldredge’s rust-colored dress.

His first goal accomplished, Henry turned back to see one raccoon heading for the heavy drapes framing the front window and the other hissing at the bank manager in quite a menacing fashion.  The second raccoon then turned in the young woman’s direction and, taking a page from his friend, headed for the nearest hiding spot–in this case, her skirts.  The woman saw the animal descend upon her and fell over in a dead faint, right at Henry’s feet.

Henry shrieked again and, using the situation to his advantage, made a beeline for the front door.  The men, distracted by two wild animals and a fallen lady, took no notice of the him striding purposefully toward the exit.

Henry left the bank behind without a backward glance, walking directly to the outhouse behind the farrier’s.  He’d left his clothes in the bushes back there, and he quickly changed, disposing of the abused dress under the privy’s bench.

He came out dressed in his usual breeches and smoothing his wild hair, his heart still pounding in his chest.  The bills, totaling two hundred and thirteen dollars were secured in his boot.  No one emerged from the bank to accuse him as he passed on the opposite side of the street.

He received several nods as he returned to his hotel, but no one cried foul.  He would collect his meager possessions and return to Concord, able to pay the debt his father’s pencil business had unfortunately accumulated.  His father could then resolve the obligation without his aunt’s intercession.  Henry was anticipating his father would be so grateful, he would allow Henry to withdraw from the family business all together.

After this, he vowed, he was finished with commerce all together.  He longed for a simpler life, something in the woods.  Walden Pond was nice, perhaps he could go there.

Henry couldn’t wait.

Help This

This week’s challenge from Terribleminds:  Sub-Genre Tango.  This one’s a cross between Cyberpunk and Black Comedy.

—-

Ensen Johnson wasn’t what you’d call an optimistic guy.  Losing the lower half of your body to a pulse gun would make anyone sour.  Especially when the gun belonged to some old broad who thought he was after her purse.  Everyone kept reminding him that at least he was still alive.   For what that was worth.  Laying in a hospital bed for six months wasn’t much of a life.  Knowing there was nothing left below his hips just plain fucking sucked.  At least he had his dick.  Even if no one ever touched it again, he still had the option.  There was always that.

The social worker who’d done his “discharge planning” had strongly suggested a service animal.  Ensen thought the idea was ridiculous.  His arms worked, which meant he could still use a computer and he had no problem getting a beer to his mouth.  What he didn’t need was some fur-ball shitting all over the place.

Not to worry, the social worker clapped.  Just wait.  Just wait until you see what we have for you.  She’d brought in a small robot, squat and segmented like a bug, the size of a dachshund.  She jawed on about the “dog’s” fucking pincer grasp and his ability to balance upright.  Runs on dog chow, she said. Just like the real thing.

Ensen suspected that the whirring eyes hid cameras. The government took every available opportunity to spy on folks.  If they couldn’t watch you piss, someone wasn’t earning their money.

Despite some natural curiosity about the dog, Ensen wasn’t buying.  If the thing ate dog chow, reason said he’d shit it out afterward.  And Ensen’s father hadn’t raised him to clean anyone’s shit.

The social worker insisted.  As did the doctors.  So, to compensate for his missing lower half, Ensen was released from Room 113 with a high-tech wheelchair and a mechanical centipede-dog that could operate a fucking can opener.  Just what he needed.

The damn thing was a nuisance.  It didn’t carry groceries, didn’t answer the phone and never once brought home a dime.  Ensen tried hacking it, just to see if he could, but a loud warning projected from the dog’s throat, cautioning him that tampering with state property was a crime.  Yet another strike against the dog who he’d named Bug.

The middle of July was hot, the air conditioner was broken (yet another thing Bug had failed to remedy), and the last beer was out of reach in the far back of the refrigerator.

“I need a goddamn beer,” Ensen told Bug.  If nothing else, Bug was a good listener.  With the exception of the recorded warning, Bug never talked back.  Ensen knew plenty of women who could take lessons.

Bug chittered into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.  The single beer lay on its side against the back wall.  Bug’s arms were too short; he just stood there reaching and whirring and letting all the cold air out.

“Watch out.”  Ensen nudged the control on his chair with a disregard born from an ongoing desire to “accidently” run Bug over and save him from buying anymore dog food.  Just thinking about the smell of chipped liver in gravy made him mad.

“Stupid fucking thing.  Eating my food and getting in my way.  Probably been drinking my beer when I’m asleep, too.”  His chair jerked forward but only succeeded in hitting the refrigerator with a loud cracking noise.

“Break my chair?  Who’s going to pay for that?”  Ensen’s blood boiled.  “How about I take the cost of the repairs out of your fucking food?  Nothing but a damn waste of money.”  Ensen tried to reach the beer but the chair couldn’t get him close enough.  He unlatched the harness and leaned forward, his fingertips brushing the cold bottle, just enough to tease.

Bug made a helpful clicking sound at his feet and Ensen lunged forward, trying to clear that last half-inch.  He snagged the bottle but without the seatbelt, he tipped out of the chair, smacking his face on two shelves, the vent grate and the floor on his way down.  He smacked his head in just the right spot and didn’t regain consciousness for almost ten hours.

He woke hot, nauseous and still pissed off.  At least Bug had closed the refrigerator.  Ensen’s long shirt, his concession to getting dressed, was hiked above his belly button. He lifted his head to find Bug staring at him, eyes whirring.  Something red hung from his mouth.  Ensen blinked.  It looked like…his dick.

“You little bastard,” Ensen growled.  Bug made a mechanical whining noise, or maybe he was just choking on a bit of veiny gristle.

It is a punishable offense to withhold food from a cyber-assistant.”  Bug had no problem making himself understood, even with food in his mouth.

“That’s my dick.  It’s all I had left.  I’m going to kill you.”  As soon as he could get off the floor and stop his crotch from bleeding.

It is a punishable offense to threaten a cyber-assistant.”  Bug dropped the half-chewed meat on the floor in front of him so his metal glare would be unimpeded.

“Alright, alright.”  Already sick, the sight of blood was making Ensen woozy.  “At least fetch me a damn towel.”  He’d run the dog over later–as soon as he got back in his chair.

Bug wagged his stumpy mechanical tail before skittering off to the bathroom.  Always glad to be helpful, that one.  Why couldn’t they have given him a cyber-parakeet?  Or a bunny.  Something vegetarian.

Ensen grabbed what was left of his love-life and tried to pull himself up.  The doctors fixed his crushed spinal cord, they could surely take care of this.

Bug returned just as Ensen was pulling himself back into the chair.  He dropped the towel in Ensen’s lap and sat back–a patient assistant, ever-ready for his master’s next command.

The Eyes Have It

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge from Terribleminds: Must Love Guns

—-

 

Burned eggs were the first sign something was wrong.  Sharon had fixed them the same way, every morning for the last twenty-nine years: over-easy, no runny whites, no hard yellows.  Once, Mack could understand, but every day this week?  Just odd.

She was asking funny things, too.  Where was the toilet paper?  Do you want to sell that painting over the couch?

Mack knew he wasn’t getting any younger, but by God, there was nothing left of the perky cheerleader he’d gotten naked in back of his old Chevelle.

Still, even though things were off, he didn’t think much of it.

Then Thursday, Mack woke from a late afternoon nap.  The sky was dark and Sharon hadn’t called him for dinner.  He wandered from the den and found her sitting in an easy chair, pointing the barrel of his Colt Python at the large painting in the living room.

He blinked.  It was a dark print, one his mother insisted was a Nicola Casissa.  A large bouquet of dark flowers sat in a dark basket-like shape on a dark table-like surface. It had been his grandmother’s, and her mother’s, and Mack considered it the ugliest thing in the house.  He’d actually laughed when Sharon asked if they should sell it.  It wasn’t his taste, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that should require an armed defense, either.

“Shar?”  He stopped in the doorway, wondering who her real target was.  He’d never seen her use a weapon before, but she looked comfortable enough with it.

“I sure am glad you had a gun,” she told him, never taking her eyes off the helpless peonies.

“Sharon, what’s going on in here?  What are you doing with that?”  His initial shock was wearing off, and worry was quickly replacing it.

“It’s been watching me,” she said, and her voice sounded strange.  Was she drunk?  Or had she gone crazy?

“What has?” He slipped into the room, checking behind the door as he did.

“See the eyes?”  She raised the gun at the top of the picture.  Mack saw plenty of flowers but nothing that looked like eyes.

He shook his head.  “Honey, why don’t you put that down?”

“Look,” she insisted, and he realized what sounded so funny.  It was like someone else was talking with Sharon’s voice.  He dragged his gaze back to the painting and looked closer.

The flowers up by the basket’s handle, two navy morning glories drooping on their stems, had white and brown centers that did look a little like eyes.  They were the right color–the same whiskey shade as Sharon’s eyes, in fact.

“Shar?” Mack’s voice cracked.

“Don’t worry, Mack,” she said.  “Nothing’s getting out of that painting.  Not while I’m here.”  And the Sharon-thing smiled, crinkling viridian eyes at him.

Mack back out of the room, fear sending adrenaline crackling through his system.  What was sitting in his chair?  “Why don’t you put down the gun?” he suggested from the hall, keeping his tone calm, hiding his burgeoning panic.  He thought about calling the police, but what was he supposed to say?  His wife’s eyes had changed color?  She was holding a painting hostage in their living room?

He peered around the doorway and watched her.  She didn’t seem interested in him.  She was just intent on watching the flowers.  Those two particular flowers.

After a while, he shifted his attention to the painting.  The dark colors and half-hidden shapes hinted at something sinister–and staring at it was oddly hypnotic.  Once, just as he was turning his head to look back at Sharon, he thought the eyes might have blinked.

Mack eventually tired of standing and slid onto the couch next to Sharon’s chair.  They didn’t speak, and the knot of tension at the base of Mack’s testicles slowly faded.  Sharon’s gun never wavered.

Mack blinked at morning sun filtering through the closed blinds.  He must have slept.  “Shar?”

She smiled.  “Good morning, Mack.  I think I’d like breakfast.”

“Yeah.”  Mack stretched.  His neck hurt.  “That sounds good.”

“I’ll have eggs, please.  Scrambled.”

Mack stared at her.  He never made breakfast.  She turned green eyes on him and flashed a smile with too many teeth.  He headed to the kitchen.

The next day was the same.  Sharon tirelessly pointed his gun at the painting, Mack sat next to her and brought her anything she needed.  Sharon didn’t sleep or get up to use the bathroom.

The third day, Mack woke from his makeshift bed on the couch and Sharon was gone.  He found her standing by the stove, wearing her second-best apron and humming in front of a skillet of eggs.

“Good morning, Mack.  Would you like breakfast?”

Mack looked around.  The gun was nowhere to be seen.  “What–what about the painting, Shar?”

“What painting, you goose?”  She dished out a plateful of eggs and added buttered toast.

“In the living room.  The painting you’ve been sitting in front of for the last three days.  The one you’ve been pointing my gun at.”  Mack felt something like alarm rise in his chest, but it might have been the smell of burnt eggs.

“Pointing a gun at a painting?  Me?  Mack, are you feeling alright?”  She gave a quarter turn and he could see those teeth again.  All those teeth.

“You said there were eyes in the painting, Sharon.”  Mack’s heart was pounding.  If she would just turn.  He needed to see her eyes.

“It’s a painting of flowers, Mack,” she said patiently.  She finally turned, looking at him, bright green eyes shining over the plate of eggs.

Mack ignored her offering, his legs numb as he returned to the painting.  The navy flowers were still listing at the top of the bouquet, but the brown eyes, Sharon’s eyes–the one’s he’d looked into a thousand times, and seen recently in this very painting, were gone.

His gun sat on the coffee table, waiting for him.

 

The Reluctant Gangster

From The Deadline Dames: A 250 word piece based on this picture

 

“They call it what again?” Jack tried not to move the gun.  The photographer had already yelled at him twice.

“Erotica.”  Keith couldn’t hide his smirk.

“Why don’t they just call it porn?”  There were some things Jack would never understand.

“Girls like to pretend they’re too good for porn.  If they admit they’re into it, what would be left to complain about?”

Jack wasn’t convinced.  “And you’re sure it’s the same thing?”

The photographer repositioned the fog machine and Keith took the opportunity to stretch. “It’s almost the same,” he laughed.  “Only instead of straight porn, it’s porn, boring stuff, porn, talking, porn, more talking, porn.  Perfect for chicks.”

“And you think women will actually buy this one?”  Jack was still wrapping his head around the whole cover model gig.  What if people got the wrong idea?

“Well,” Keith paused as the photographer positioned him closer to the antique car.  “It’s not really for one specific book.  They like to use the same cover as many times as they can.”

“I didn’t realize it was such a popular theme.”

Keith shrugged.  “Women love gangsters.”

“Gay gangsters?”  Jack couldn’t believe it.  “Really?”

“Hey, I don’t know,” Keith laughed.  “I’m not a woman.  I prefer my sex with less of a story line.”

Jack shook his head.  “A gangster wearing argyle.  That’ll be the day.”  The camera’s flash was bright, and for the first time, Jack was grateful for the stupid sunglasses.  “Women,” he snorted.  “Erotica.”

“Yeah,” Keith grinned.  “Erotica.”

The Peril of Pretzels

From the challenge That Poor, Poor Protagonist over at Terribleminds:

Pretzels were ultimately responsible.  Most people have no idea how to tempt a pixy.  Some leave a saucer of milk, but only a brownie would drink something that came from a cow.  Then there’s the usual fare: sparkling pieces of foil, colored glass, costume jewelry, bits of waxed twine, berries, seashells, orange peels and flower blossoms.  Interesting, all of it, but not enough to lure someone like me.

It was the setup that threw me–amateurish and lop-sided, I thought it was a bird house.  On the lowest branch of the Mimosa tree, a child had hung a small milk carton, decorated with pink and green flowers cut from scrap paper.  A rectangular hole was cut in the front, providing an ample doorway.  Inside, in the far corner, lay my downfall–a long pretzel stick covered in crystalline chunks of salt.  I would have dusted at the sight–if I’d had any dust left.  I hadn’t eaten in two days.

I should have shown more caution, although I’m not sure I could have resisted even if I’d seen the trap.  Pretzels are tricky, crunchy things.

I stepped over the lip of the doorway and ducked under a dandelion propped into the corner.  I didn’t realize I was stuck until I tried to leave.  The floor of the milk carton had been coated in some sort of glue.  As, apparently, was the wall.  I’d braced myself to duck back under the flower.  Now I couldn’t let go.

I sneezed and my best bell-hat fell off, landing in the glue next to my feet.

“Hallo?”  It was Saffron.  Of all the pixies to find me like this, he was the worst.  I’d never hear the end of it.  Saffron was a first son of a first son, and his mother never let anyone forget it.  She specialized in two things: plum-mint tarts and elevating Saffron’s social status through the methodical and persistent destruction of everyone else’s.

“Blu, Blu, Blu.”  He laughed so hard his wings shimmered in the sun.  “Look who finally got caught.  Mother’ll love this one.”  His sharp eyes hadn’t missed my feet hardening in a pool of lacquer.  I pulled on my foot, hoping to tug it from the boot, but the laces were tied tight.  Saffron darted in, tucking up his wings and wedging himself against opposite walls–he wasn’t stupid enough to land.  “Those new boots?”  Another smirk.

“These?” I tried a nonchalant shrug, resisting the urge to spit on him.  “I have two pair just like them at home.”

“Two more?” He snorted.  “And thistles make good soup, Blu.  You couldn’t afford two more boots if someone gave them to you.

“What do you want?” I was in no mood for Saffron’s games today.  He started to speak and I cut him off.  “For your silence and your help.”  I was wasting my breath.  He was still happily attached to his mother’s tit.

“I would have asked for your hat,” he snickered, glancing at the floor, “but I prefer something less…sticky.”  I glared at him.  He leaned over and tweaked my breast. He’d been waiting a long time for the chance.  I flushed but there was no room to retreat.  He smiled, waiting for me to say something, hoping for the opportunity to spread word of my misfortune.

“Your dome would do me nice, I think.”  He knew better than to look me in the eye when he said it.

“My house?  Where am I supposed to sleep?”  I’d be killed by the first frost.

“You could always stay here.”  Saffron shrugged with a rattle of gold-tipped wings.

I made a sound of protest.  “Not a lot of options,” he said, his eyes back on my chest. “I’ll have your vow.”

“You think I’m a liar?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think, Blu.  You give me your vow, you can’t back out.”  He laughed and I almost, almost dropped the pretzel to knock him off his cocky little perch.  “In advance,” he smirked.  He must have seen my expression.

“My vow, then,” I told him.  “My dome to you, in return for your assistance and discretion.”

“Madame Blu.”  He tipped his hat and ducked out the doorway.  “I’ll return presently.”

“Presently” could mean anything–I hadn’t thought to stipulate a time-frame.  Tears sprung to my eyes.  I’d promised him my house, my beautiful little house, just yesterday decorated with buttercup petals and hanging fern leaves.  More tears welled, but before panic could set in, there was a noise outside and the milk carton tipped, a violent rocking motion that made the only possession I had left in the world–my pretzel, fall to the floor and lodge itself in the glue at my feet.

I cursed, and a pair of wide, sky-blue eyes peered in at me.  “That’s a bad word, little fairy.”  For a moment, my heart stopped beating.  I’d been Seen.  Not just trapped, but Seen.  It was an offense punishable by death.

Chubby fingers, grimy with dirt and coated with something purple, reached in, grabbed me around the waist and pulled.  I tried not to make a sound.  The punishment for talking was disembowelment before you were killed.  Despite my intentions, getting yanked out of my boots and losing the skin off my hand hurt enough I couldn’t stop the scream.

“Come on, little fairy.  I’m gonna take you home.  I gotta a dog and a cat and now a fairy.  I used to have a bird, but Petey died.  You can have his cage.  Door’s broken though, so my mom’ll have to clip your wings.  Just like Petey.”

My vision greyed as the grubby fist squashed me in an unholy grip, but as I was carried out of the sun and into a dark house that smelled of cats, I caught sight of Saffron’s mother, hovering next to the old Hemlock and watching me with a crooked little smile.

The Longest Shortest Three Minutes

Terribleminds has posted another challenge: write a story in three sentences.

The soft buzz of the bathroom light and the whisper of my feet over cool tile broke the barren stillness of pre-dawn peace.  Hope bloomed, unbidden, with a familiar splash and the endless tick of 120 seconds.  The smell of cherry hand soap and the plastic stick with its desolate pink line remained behind in silent witness as I tiptoed back to bed.

Last Stall on the Left

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Flea Market from Terribleminds:

—-

 

For a terrifying moment, I was sure the guard was after me.  Angry shouts rose from the market’s edge and without taking proper stock of the dark interior, I dropped to the dirt and squeezed under the tent’s side wall.  The door flaps had been secured, sure indication the seller was off conducting business elsewhere.  Dust coated my already sore throat and I muffled a cough against my shoulder.  Getting caught in here would guarantee an accusation of stealing.  If that happened, I’d likely loose an ear.  On the other hand, staying outside didn’t hold more appeal.

I’d have no way to lose the guards out there–hiding places were scarce amongst the open market stalls.  This particular tent had not only the advantage of dropped sides, but also the deterrent of vile-smelling fare.  As one of only two food stalls in a market filled with tin pots and bolts of cloth, the seller didn’t seem overly concerned with spoilage.

“What you doin’, boy?”  I jumped at the sound of the gravely voice, bumping into the display table and jostling the pastry in question.

“Wasn’t filchin’.  Swear.”  I shrank back, edging toward the side wall, wondering how fast I could escape.  A callused hand snatched my wrist and dragged me into an errant seam of sunlight.  Sweat, brought out by heat and fear, made my grimy forehead itch.  The seller had only to shout and the guard would haul me to the market’s center.  The chances for reprieve would be slim–nothing was better for business than the spectacle of someone losing an ear.

“You come in here to steal from me?”  Thick fingers tightened around my wrist and I couldn’t stop the injured squeak.

“Please,” I begged, lifting my gaze to his face for the first time.  I hated doing it, not here.  It was risky to try such a thing on someone I didn’t know, especially without an Elder’s permission.  The vendor stared at my eyes, his bushy brows lifting.  It was the first reaction of most–everyone seemed caught off-guard by the mismatched color.

I concentrated carefully, waiting for his puckered surprise to melt into a stupid, sagging expression–sure confirmation he was going under.  The tightness left his face, and I started my push.

“I’m not here to take anything,” I told him, straightening, all traces of the ignorant urchin gone.  “Let me go and I’ll leave you in peace.  I swear I’ll not return.”  The seller’s large head dipped once in confirmation.

I sighed in relief and pulled on my arm.  His grip didn’t give.  “Let me go,” I said again, deepening my thin voice, trying to infuse it with more authority.  Nothing.  Instead, regretfully, his clarity returned.  “Let me…” I began with more force than before.

“No, boy.”  In a blink, my hand was free and the seller was perched an undersized stool backed into a dark corner of the tent.  I’d heard there were those who could resist the gift.  He didn’t match with my expectations.  “Sit.”  He gestured to the dirt floor.  “Where’d you come on a fancy trick like that?”

“Boy?” he prompted at my silence.  My lips ground tighter and I sank to the floor next to the table of pies.  I ran through my options.  Accusations of stealing would be bad, but I’d live through it.  Accusations of witchcraft carried a far stiffer penalty.

“Saw eyes like that before.  Blue and Brown, like.  Grab you the same, too.”  He pulled out a small knife and began paring his grimy fingernails.

I dropped my chin, an automatic posture–one beaten into me and designed to keep my gaze to the ground.  My voice had taken hold once, and failed.  I had to use caution from here out, or court disaster.  The vendor waited for me to speak, but the only sound in the tent was my belly calling out in protest.

“Hungry, then?”  He hadn’t looked up.  I took a tentative sniff at the air, heavy with meat and spice left sitting in the sun since dawn, protected only by a heavy crust.  I shook my head.

“Won’t take it if I’m giving it away.  That how it is?  Stealing’s fine, but you’re too good to eat an honest man’s food?”  I snatched a pie from the table, realizing a moment too late he’d been goading me.  I had to eat it now.

“I didn’t take anything from you.”  The pie went down hard, even saturated with a pig’s worth of grease.

“Guard’s after someone today,” he sniffed, back to trimming his nails.  “Wonder if it’s to do with that new vendor.  The one with the blue-fire moonstones.  Wonder if he’s got wares gone missing.”

I suppressed a smile.  This, one on one, I could manage.  The guard, ever convinced of their own importance, were a different story.  I even gave him my gaze again, knowing he’d never meet it.  “I’ve taken nothing, sir.  Search me if you like.”

He flashed me a look, his eyes focusing on a spot in the middle of my forehead.

I blinked, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”  I turned out my pockets and skimmed bony hands down my sides.  My shirt was so thin, I couldn’t have hid a copper.  “I’m sorry for sneaking shade in your tent.  I give thanks for your food and beg your leave to go.”

He sniffed again, considering the matter.  My heart pounded.  His decision could force an unpleasant outcome.  “Go on, boy,” he said finally.  “Don’t show those eyes around here again, mind you.  Next time, I’m likely to have a church-man come take a look.”

I nodded respectfully.  He wouldn’t see me again.  No one here would.

I slid out under the side wall, careful and quiet.  The guard would still be searching.  Of course, for now, the moonstone was safe in its hiding place.  But, like the meat pie working its way free, it wouldn’t stay hidden for long.

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