Chapter One: Of Books and Boils
Part One: The City of Velayne, 996 A.U. (After Unification)
Robert was snapped awake from his daze by the familiar impatient dinging of the bell on the front desk. The young boy had been so engrossed in the last few chapters of his battered copy of Burnham’s Mythologie (2nd Edition) that he had neglected to notice the not insignificant queue of increasingly irritated customers that had accumulated at the desk. Pushing himself off his perch atop a creaky ladder in one of the back rooms he landed on the oak flooring, stirring up a cloud of dust around his feet. Robert placed the book back onto a shelf that was bowing under the weight of aged, crumbling manuscripts and stacks of neglected leather bound journals and clambered towards the door, knocking over piles of second and third hand books that clattered to the floor and spat out loose pages as he went. Patting dust off his shoulders and clearing his throat with a dry cough he shuffled over to the desk and attempted an apologetic smile.
Some might say Robert was relatively attractive, in a rather bookish way. His curly brown hair permanently flecked with book dust was swept back off his face, though a few unruly locks dangled down across his thick rimmed glasses. From behind the glasses shone two bright blue eyes that always seemed to be staring off into a world of their own, even on the rare occasion they were fixed directly on you. Apart from his enchanting eyes Robert was otherwise rather plain, though this was no bad thing. Plain was not a word that could have been applied to the boy’s choice of clothing, however. A bow tie two sizes too big for him adorned his neck, a hideous pattern of red and faded gold swirls decorating it. It was slightly singed at one end as if some previous owner had attempted to burn the foul thing, but was obviously well loved by its current bearer as it was the only garment on Robert not perpetually dusty or fraying.
The tatty grey jacket he wore he had obviously outgrown quite a few years ago and it strained at the shoulders and elbows where mismatched patches of grey wool had been added to it by some second-rate tailor. A white shirt spattered with pungent book glue was tucked loosely into a pair of scratchy grey trousers that stopped before the ankle, revealing striped socks that, like the jacket, consisted more of patches than of their original material. Robert’s smart black shoes were about the only socially acceptable item in his wardrobe, though they no longer held a shine properly and the heel was close to giving on the right.
However, not even the most apologetic smile in the whole Empire could have been enough to excuse Robert to the lady stood fuming at the bookshop’s desk.
“Where’s Mr Colywick?” she snapped unpleasantly. She was a rather short lady, certainly shorter than Robert, though this was not stopping her from attempting to look down her nose at the gangly teen in front of her.
“I-I’m afraid M-Mr Colywick is down at the docks this morning my lady,” stammered Robert, pushing his glasses up to rest on the bridge of his nose, “overseeing the safe arrival of a fresh order of glue, bindings and an assortment of other literary goods. I b-believe he should be here by noon if you were wishing to speak with him, Ms…?” He asked, gesturing his open hand towards the lady whose neck was straining under the task of keeping her nostrils glaring down at him.
“It does not matter,” stated the woman, cutting across Robert’s enquiry and slamming a weighty tome onto the desk, “I simply require the spine of this book repaired by the summer festival in two weeks’ time. My daughter Belisse is to read from it at the Manshaw’s garden party and I daren’t let her attend with the book in such a condition. I trust you are competent enough to convey the task to your master?” She demanded with an impressive look of haughty derision that was unfortunately lost on Robert. He was already transfixed by the tome and clasped it in his eager hands, his fingers running the length of the book’s spine and detecting where the binding had snapped and split. It was bound in red salmon-skin leather and oozed quality.
“This is an original copy of Beckel’s Songs of Asartes, is it not?” beamed Robert excitedly, caressing the book in his hands, “Very well preserved too despite the damaged spine – I trust all the pages are present and correctly ordered my lady?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the book for a second. The lady was rather taken aback at being questioned, and with a scoff slightly restrained due to the ‘well preserved’ comment, replied:
“Indeed so. The Carwoods have always taken great care of their possessions! Now look boy, can the job be done or not?” Lady Carwood barked, attempting to reclaim control of the conversation, “Because if not, Mr Oxbrow of Oxbrow & Son in Cherry Lane has assured me he can do it for only five silver hussars.” At this comment Robert snapped his head up from his book-induced trance and fixed his eyes towards her, reeling in horror.
“Oxbrow?!” he uttered as if the name was poison in his mouth. “O-Oxbrow can’t get his hands on this, he’d b-butcher it!” The thought of a damaged book was bad enough, but a poorly repaired one was simply unacceptable. The boy in the patchwork suit gripped the book tighter to his chest as if guarding a young child. “The thought of that charlatan getting his greasy palms on just a single page of an original B-Beckel’s is simply atrocious!” The gazes of the other clients in the shop flitted to and from Robert as he ranted, all wanting to see what was going on but then not get dragged into the awkward situation themselves. Robert caught himself halfway through another exclamation of grief and saw the confused and slightly frightened look on Lady Carwood’s face. His breathing slowed slightly and his lip began to tremble less as he regained a semblance of composure once more. “Apologies my lady, but I d-do not approve of Mr Oxbrow’s methods in the slightest. He uses inferior binding glue and m-mismatches shades of leather so p-poorly one would wonder if he even looks at the covers of the books he services.”
Lady Carwood had been transfixed by the sudden outburst from this strange boy before her and now that his ranting had abated temporarily she was rapidly deciding it would be a very good idea to escape this situation as soon as possible.
“So do I take that to mean you will accept the job?” she asked desperately, her spindly fingers twitching and interlocking nervously.
“Oh, but of course!” exclaimed Robert. “Not only will we take the job, but we’ll do it for two silver hussars and do a far better job than you could have hoped for from Mr Oxbrow, my lady!” Lady Carwood perked up a bit at the mention of a good deal and seemed more relaxed now that the boy seemed to have calmed down, despite the fact he still held the book with an ardent fervour that seemed to her to be borderline unhealthy.
“Why that is a most agreeable price indeed!” she said, forcing a false smile to her thin lips. “Shall I call back within two weeks or will Mr Colywick notify me when the work is done?”
“You are welcome to return to the shop whenever you wish my lady, especially if you have any more books of this calibre that require our attention, or we provide a d-delivery service where we would bring the book to your home once we have repaired it if your ladyship wishes? That would cost four additional bronze herrings.” Robert smiled, thoughts of Oxbrow’s mistreatment of books retreating from his mind.
“Very well, make it two silver hussars and four bronze herrings. I trust you know of our residence?” Lady Carwood smirked pompously.
“Why yes,” Robert nodded, “Three doors down from the vicarage on Stepney Street, the one with the pear tree in the front garden?” Lady Carwood smirked again.
“Yes, that’s the one. I shall be on my way, then. Send my compliments to Mr Colywick.” And with that Lady Carwood turned on her heels and strutted towards the door. The bell above the door gave a gentle tinkle as the door swung open and shut again, then the shop returned to relative peace and quiet. There was a gentle muttering between a few of the customers as they passed comment on the scene that had just played out before them. Robert gently filed Lady Carwood’s copy of Beckel’s Songs of Asartes in a thin cotton sleeve and slotted in beneath the desk, pinning a note to the sleeve listing the due repair date in scrawled handwriting as he went. He raised his head back up, shook a loose curl of hair off his face, and hummed to himself contentedly.
Halfway across the city of Velayne, Evangeline Mace was not having a much better start to her day. She had been up since dawn to-ing and fro-ing through the lower dockyards tending to sailors the worse for wear, either from frequenting the local taverns the night before or those fresh into port on the morning tide who had lacerated their fingers on splintered wood or got rope burn from being too enthusiastic with the mooring ropes. Then there had been the usual customers and the regular weekly visit to The Salted Kipper to tend to poor Old Tarwick’s dodgy feet and recurring boils, and unfortunately no amount of fresh sea air would be clearing that stench from her nose anytime soon.
Her satchels were running low on supplies of poultices and herbs so she decided to cut down the back of Riggers Way and make a flying visit to the storeroom in Gable’s Apothecary before heading on to the upper docks to attend her stall as she did every 3rd Midsday of the month. She ducked and weaved past sailors and dock workers carrying nets, barrels and all manner of cargo along the irregularly cobbled street, nodding occasionally to those she recognised and exchanging brief greetings with more accustomed acquaintances. Nearing the top of the street she recognised a familiar face she’d not seen for a while and weaved around a man carrying a tray of assorted fish to reach a barrel chested man, who was leaning against a stone wall, smoking a clay pipe and gazing out into the market square. As she neared, he turned to meet her with a broad smile of yellowed teeth from beneath a wild and greying beard.
“Why, hello stranger!” the man grinned, pulling her in for a hug. “How’ve you been keeping, Ange? Well, I hope?” he asked with a booming voice that thundered over the miscellaneous cries of traders proclaiming their wares.
“Hello, Verne,” smiled Angie in response, only wincing slightly as the volume of his voice. Of all the variations of her name, she much preferred the shorter ones such as ‘Angie’ or ‘Ange’. As nice as the name Evangeline was, Angie couldn’t help but feel that it was a very inappropriate name for someone who was lancing boils and rubbing poultices into mouldy feet on a daily basis. ‘Evangeline’ evoked images of light, floaty dresses, harp music, and someone who might pronounce the word ‘year’ as ‘yaah’. ‘Angie’ sounded a lot more down to earth, and infinitely more appropriate for someone who could go toe-to-toe with most sailors in a slanging match.
“Well, thanks,” Angie continued, “and you? Last I heard you’d sailed out east and you’ve been gone nearly five moons now. I trust you’ve got a tale or two to tell?”
“That I do, m’girl!” replied Verne, and Angie couldn’t help but feel the man seemed less enthusiastic than usual. Had his latest business venture gone wrong? Or worse – gone completely to plan, leaving him with no real story to tell? “You’ll be at The Sailor’s Jaunt come sundown I trust?” he smiled, gesturing with his pipe. Angie nodded and took a step to one side to avoid two men rolling a barrel they were not fully in control of down towards the piers.
“Naturally,” she nodded with a grin, “And you can pay me the eight herrings you owe me for fixing up your arm last time you were in port then. But now I really must get on to Gable’s before midday so I have time to set up my stall before the afternoon rush – if you’ll excuse me?” she said, dropping a half-curtsey before starting off across the market square without waiting for a reply. Verne chuckled heartily as she strode off.
“It was five herrings I owed you Ange!” he shouted above the crowd. Without turning to look back Angie replied:
“It would have been if you’d paid me on time Verne!” which made the aged mariner smack his meaty hands against his thighs and howl with laughter even more.
“You’re growing into a shrewd business lady, m’girl! Send my regards to Verity, won’t you?” Angie heard him call after her before his voice was lost in the tumultuous racket of the market stalls.
Angie made her way through the throng of market goers hunting for a deal and with relatively little elbowing made it to the entrance of a small shop that despite the strong smell of fish in the air was fighting back with an aromatic fragrance of its own, and was surprisingly threatening to win. A sign above the doorway written in cursive script proudly announced:
Est. 786 AU
Remedies for your Maladies,
Effective & Affordable!
The reed glass of the bay window distorted a heady assortment of oddly shaped bottles and jars piled high, which themselves contained a variety of coloured mixtures, ingredients and oddments. Angie slipped through the beaded curtain hanging in the doorway, which jangled and tinkled as she entered into a room filled with more piles of concoctions and potions covering every available surface. Sweet-smelling steam rose near the counter as Mrs Verity Gable, dressed in robes and wraps almost as brightly coloured and clashing as the medley of cure-alls, cure-somes and cure-nothings that she sold, boiled a cup of chamomile tea for a customer.
“That’ll be two herrings for the chamomile tea sachets dearie, there should be more than enough there to last you until your Mikhail gets back from Elthrium.” she said, placing a soothing hand on the lady’s shoulder and smiling sympathetically. “Do drop in if you run out before then of course, as you know my door is always open.” The lady gave a weak smile and nodded, placing two bronze coins into Mrs Gable’s hand and turning to shuffle out of the shop. Angie stepped aside to allow her to pass, flashing a brief smile at the old lady who responded in kind.
“Ah, Evangeline!” beamed Mrs Gable, raising her arms towards the girl happily and causing the bracelets and bands on her wrists to rattle and clatter, “So good to see you again my dear, your aura looked rather drained this morning when you left but you seem much more chipper now!” Angie mentally raised an eyebrow, knowing full well Mrs Gable had been sound asleep and doing her best imitation of a saw mill when she’d left this morning and so couldn’t possibly have seen her, drained aura or not. Angie bit her lip though, as, however insufferably buoyant Mrs Gable was, she had given her a steady job these past four years which she considered herself very lucky to have. She gave Mrs Gable a half-curtsey and smiled.
“Why thank you Mrs Gable,” said Angie, “That is good to hear. I was wondering if-” she began but Mrs Gable cut across her, not impolitely.
“So how was everyone this morning then? I trust you managed to tend to them all okay?”
“Yes, no concerns thank you Mrs Gable. Josiah Beechwood’s growth is doing much better and he thanks you for your discretion in his treatment. Mrs Surral asked me to tell you that the herbal tea you’d provided her with seems to be improving matters greatly thank you, and also added her bedpan had never smelt so fresh, which has apparently made a pleasant change. On a related note, I spoke with Mr Alsop this morning through the door of his privy, and whilst he says his bowels are still giving him gyp, they are improving. Mr Johnson’s knee was much better too. I drained a bit more fluid out of it which he was very grateful for, though now I’ve only got two needles left so will need some more ordered in soon, please. I’m well stocked on vials.
Lastly, Old Tarwick’s generally well but he’s developed a few more boils and there’s a nasty carbuncle forming on the back of his neck which I feared might happen if he kept scratching it. I soaked them all with warm cloths and told him again to stop attempting to squeeze them but I don’t know if he was listening, he rarely does...
Oh, and Miss Lola George stopped me to ask, whilst blushing as red as a tomato I might add, if you could give her the same concoction you provided to her friend Miss Alice Porter?” Angie shrugged quizzically. “I imagine you know what that means?” Mrs Gable chuckled to herself.
“Ah yes, they’ll all be after a drop of Erosillia coming up to the summer festival…” she chortled, shaking her head. “It’s not as if it actually does anything, but I only charge one herring for it and it’s amazing what it does for the girls’ confidence if they think the boy’s drunk it, let me tell you…” Angie coughed uncomfortably. Of course she knew what Mrs Gable was talking about and was probably better read about the mechanics of it all than a lot of the silly girls who went skipping down the streets in their newest dresses trying to ply boys they liked with so-called ‘love potions’, but that didn’t mean she saw the need to talk about it in any level of detail at all, thank you very much.
“Apologies, Mrs Gable, but I was wondering if I might have the key to the storeroom so I could set up my stall for this afternoon?” Angie asked, hastily changing the subject.
“Oh but of course dear, you don’t need to ask! You know where it is.” Mrs Gable smiled.
“Well, yes,” faltered Angie, “But you know Sapphire doesn’t really get on with me as well as you, so I was wondering if-”
“Oh, stuff and nonsense my dear, she simply adores you!” waved Mrs Gable, cutting across Angie’s wavering request. “Here, she was around a minute ago, let me call her…” and with this Mrs Gable began to whistle and pat her legs in a beckoning manner. Angie rolled her eyes slightly. After a few seconds of whistling the sounds of padding could be heard coming down the stairs and then the head of an enquiring cat poked out from around the frame of the back door. “There’s my Sapphie!” beamed Mrs Gable as the slender cat yawned and sloped lazily towards her. Its silvery-blue coat shimmered as it leapt up onto the counter and it arched its back gracefully before turning to look at Mrs Gable with wide green eyes. “Come here my precious one, who’s a good girl?!” she smiled and the cat leapt into her outstretched arms, nestling its head into her shoulder.
Sapphire craned her neck to look over Mrs Gable’s shoulder at Angie and lazily hissed in her direction, the cat’s ears flattening slightly. Angie made a face back at Sapphire, which sniffed and tucked itself back up into Mrs Gable’s arms, who was busy babbling sweet nonsenses at the cat. She stroked her hand along Sapphire’s luscious thick fur and slipped her fingers around the cat’s leather collar, which held on it a small ring of keys. Mrs Gable unhooked a little silver key off the ring and palmed it, turning to proffer it to Angie.
“Thank you Mrs Gable,” nodded Angie, grateful for not having to spend precious time chasing the frustrating feline around the shop once again. The last time she’d nearly ended up dangling out of the upstairs window by her underskirt but thankfully the darn cat had been lured down by a street cart selling fresh salmon and distracted long enough for her to swipe the key off Sapphire’s collar without further incident. Sighing, she went to step through the back door towards the storeroom but paused and turned back towards Mrs Gable, who was lost in her own little world of cat adoration. “Sorry Mrs Gable, nearly slipped my mind - Verne is back in port and he asked me to send you his regards.” Mrs Gable snapped out of her daze and her cheeks appeared to redden slightly.
“Oh my, the illustrious Captain Verne has returned has he?” she blushed. “Thank you for letting me know dear, how kind of him to remember little old me!” Mrs Gable tittered, uncomfortably reminding Angie of one of the young girls from the Pausday School that she went to when she had the time. “If you are to see him again whilst about on your errands do make sure to drop him an invitation for tea and cakes, won’t you?” Mrs Gable fluttered. Angie swayed awkwardly from foot to foot as Mrs Gable fussed absentmindedly over her plans for tea and cakes and perhaps more importantly Captain Verne, Sapphire watching the girl’s discomfort from her throne in Mrs Gable’s arms with wry pleasure.
“Um, if that is all…?” trailed Angie.
“Oh yes, yes of course you must get on!” flustered Mrs Gable, nearly knocking a tray of jars over as she snapped back to the present once more. “I won’t keep you dearie, best of luck at the market today and you let me know if you have any more trouble from that Oxbrow lad and his motley crew of mischief-makers!” Mrs Gable blustered, wagging an impassioned finger in the air that threatened to unseat Sapphire, who meowed gently. Angie smiled weakly, gave another half-curtsey and promptly excused herself.
Damn, I’d almost forgotten about Jacob Oxbrow, she thought to herself as she hurried up the stairs. That insufferable bookbinder’s son is the last person I need to deal with today.
 A quick note on currency: the coins used throughout the Empire were split into three different types, with bronze pieces being smallest and those of least value. On one side was the profile of the current Emperor and on the other was a fish leaping out of water, hence the common term for these coins being ‘herrings’. Twelve herrings equated to a silver hussar, so called due to the horseman on its design, and twenty of those was equal to one gold falcon. For reference, a certain pear tree had cost forty-one gold falcons.