In this week’s flash fiction challenge, Chuck Wendig told us to choose five words from a list and incorporate them into a story. I chose the words foxglove, whalebone, topaz, acid and orphan. And I had a surprising amount of fun writing this piece!
Hope you enjoy it, and thanks for stopping by!
“Foxglove!” shouted a customer, clicking his fingers aggressively. The yellow light of the gas burners accentuated the nicotine stains on his fingernails.
Craela gave Bartholomew a smirk, knowing how much being called that would irritate him but he ignored her. He straightened his maroon waistcoat over his russet fur, pulled his white gloves a little further down his paws, and with all the dignity he could muster, walked across the pub to the man calling him. The beer swollen floorboards whined in protest under his small weight.
“I’m Bartholomew sir, how can I be of assistance?” he asked with a slight bow.
“Don’t give me airs Foxglove, if I wanted airs, I wouldn’t be in this shithole.”
“I’ve already told you my name. I don’t answer to Foxglove,” replied Bartholomew, turning away stiffly.
The man grabbed him by the waistcoat and spun him around, and picking him up off the floor, brought him up level with the broken capillaries on his nose. The little fox winced at the fetid smell of stale alcohol on his breath.
“Listen here fox. I’m doing you a favour by acknowledging your gloves. If you prefer I can just call you a cur and kick you, as I would do to your non glove wearing cousins.” As the man spoke he sprayed tobacco blackened spittle on the fox’s face. “Now go find me a girl called Craela, I have business with her. And get me a pint of ale.”
He let go of Bartholomew who staggered on the uneven ground and fell back on his arse, reflexively putting out a hand to the floor to break his fall. The fox got up, hissing with annoyance at the murky stain on his white glove from the rotting floorboards.
“Hurry about it!” shouted the customer.
Craela could see from behind the bar that Bartholomew was deliberately taking his time in re-adjusting his waistcoat and gloves to anger the man. She decided to intervene before he got himself pummelled.
“I’m Craela,” she said, ushering Bartholomew away. “What do you want?”
“Hm. You’re younger than I was expecting.”
“You came here to discuss my age?” Out of the corner of her eye Craela saw Bartholomew carefully spit out a thick gob into a pint glass before filling it with ale. She smothered a smile.
“I hear you work for the Orphan Seeker,” said the man.
“Could be. What’s it to you?”
“Got a commission for him. Ah, thank you,” he said as Bartholomew slapped the pint down on the table with scowl. “It’s a jewel. Topaz. Here.” The man’s right hand delved inside his jacket and at his movement Craela got a strong whiff of stale sweat and mould. She turned her head away in disgust.
The man handed her a drawing of a woman wearing an obscenely large topaz set in a garish necklace. Craela took it and examined it.
“You know the fees?” she asked. “Fifty silvers for jewellery.”
“Ah but this will be easy to find, such a large piece.”
“Then go to another seeker, the Orphan doesn’t negotiate.”
The man grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her skin, the sinew on his forearm bulging.
“Say I were to break your arm now, do you think the Orphan will negotiate then?”
Craela didn’t flinch.
“I’d be careful if I were you,” she replied, her voice cold. “He once had two thugs take cricket bats to a man’s kneecaps for looking at me in a way that displeased him. He’s very protective, and he’s always watching.”
The man looked about him at the rotting, half empty tavern, uncertain. Craela wrenched her arm away.
“Come back tomorrow with fifty silvers,” she said, and walked away.
“How will I know if he’s taken the commission?” the man called after her.
“If I have the necklace for you tomorrow then he took it on. If I don’t, then he decided it wasn’t worth his time.”
The man opened his mouth as if to say something, seemed to think better of it, and slapped a copper on the table before lumbering out.
“That wanker dirtied my glove, look at it,” complained Bartholomew as they climbed up the narrow stairs to the room they occupied in the eaves. “That’s going to be really hard to get out.” He peered at the white fabric anxiously, the dancing candlelight making the stains appear darker than they had before.
Most of the foxes that roamed Gladeport were feral. They could be spoken to although their language was generally too garbled to be understood. A few foxes were civilised, and Bartholomew had to be the most dignified of them all. Those foxes wore pristine white gloves to show that they didn’t lower themselves to scavenging from the rubbish heaps that lined the streets. This was, of course, incredibly unpractical since they still had to use their hands for other purposes, and keeping the gloves clean was a daily headache.
“I’m going to need some acid to get that out.”
“No, we’re starting to run low and it’s too expensive to waste on cleaning. We work in a shit hole of a tavern, you can have less than perfect gloves.”
“I will not! I will not be mistaken for a common, a feral, a scavenging, filthy fox!”
“I had to point out the obvious, but you are a fox.”
“I thought you didn’t like that word?” Craela smirked.
“Fine, I’ll only take half a pill.”
Craela sighed, pretending to be mull it over.
“You can have a third, I should be able to find this thing with two thirds of a pill.” She frowned at the drawing trying to commemorate it to memory. She could already get a sense of the woman from the picture. It was nothing more than an impression, a feeling, to which she would have struggled to put words. The acid would make that much clearer.
“A third?” Bartholomew moaned. “I’ll never get this out with only a third. Aya, what are you doing to me Craela!”
They entered the attic room they called home. To call it sparse would have been generous: there was nothing but a narrow mattress shoved right under the eaves on one side, a low wooden table in the middle of the room, and next to it a chair occupied by a pile of rags.
Bartholomew walked over to the edge of the room where it met with the ceiling, and taking off the other glove, bent down to the floorboards. He pulled one up, and retrieved a small wooden box from the cache beneath. Inside were five chalky white pills. He took out a pill and returned the box to its hiding place. The pill he placed on a little tin plate that rested on the table, and he carefully cut a third of it off with a knife.
Craela meanwhile began to undress, letting out a sigh when she removed her whalebone corset. She laid her dress out carefully on the narrow bed and put on the tattered beggar’s clothes from the chair.
It was easier having everyone in Gladeport believe that the Orphan Seeker was a man. In her first year as a seeker she had found customers far too ready to cheat her when they knew she was just a young girl. She had learnt the importance of a reputation and of swift retaliation – and of course she had quickly discovered the convenience of hired muscle and of cricket bats.
“Alright, you can clean your glove later.” She knew that if left unchecked Bartholomew would happily spend the rest of the evening on his blasted glove at the expense of the paying commission.
The fox looked like he was about to protest but instead he grudgingly nodded and removed his waistcoat, looking now for all intents and purposes like a regular fox.
“Ready?” she asked, picking up what was left of the acid pill.
She hesitated for a fraction of a second: she always hated the fear of that first moment when she dropped acid. Although she was known for being the best seeker in Gladeport, she still needed the acid to see beyond the exteriors and into the festering secrets that lingered in every shadow of the city. Acid brought her knowledge, but sometimes along with that knowledge came terrifying nightmares that left her clinging, terrified, to her bed for nights on end.
There was no way for her to know beforehand what a search would bring.
She took a breath, closed her eyes and placed the pill on her tongue.