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In Sickness and In Health

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I stepped outside, lighting the lantern that hung beside the door. The sun had yet to rise, its rays just brushing the edge of the horizon. I reached my hand out to steady the swaying sign, a steaming cup adorned with a crescent moon on its side was painted over the wood in dulling colors. Nostalgia forced a smile over my lips, as it did every morning. I still remember the first day The Crescent had opened its door.

I ducked back inside, immediately engulfed in the aroma of coffee as I closed the door softly behind me. Instinctively, all heads turned to meet my gaze at the sound. I only grinned back at them, taking my place behind the counter once more as the patrons quickly looked away again. I poured a few cups of tea, a few more of coffee, then set each on a tray with sugar cubes, alongside small pastries, of course. Then I began my rounds to each of the morning patrons.

I first went to the table closest to the counter, finding a quite familiar face. Adisa. His hair was a mess, eyes flickering back and forth over the table. He nervously wrung his hands, trying to steady his breathing, but to no avail.

“Ran into trouble last night, didn’t you, dear?” I asked him with a gentle voice. He nodded after a long moment, his eyes falling still and blank on the center of the dark tabletop.

“So much… it’s getting so hard… so, so hard…” he choked, “I can’t this keep up, Host… they know it’s me.”

“I understand, Adisa,” I whispered, carefully sliding the tray in front of him. I placed a hand on his shoulder, causing him to look up at me.

“Bring your wife here, and the kids, too, you may all stay here for as long as you’d like. I have enough room upstairs, you just need to get off the streets,” I told him softly.

“I-I can’t… if I leave here, they… they’ll find me… we’re lucky I didn’t lead them here…” he tried to keep his voice down and sobs unheard, but there was no need. Everyone here has been in a place like his. No one would listen to what he has to say anyway, a sob story interests them much less than a quick rumor.

“I’ll send a messenger then,” I reassured, “Will your family still come?”

He nodded, hesitant. “I-I believe so… thank you, thank you so much…”

I handed him one of the cups of tea, setting a few cubes of sugar beside it. “It’s all on the house while you stay.”

I moved to the next table, greeting the three children who sat there.

“How was the night for you, my lovelies?” I questioned with a smile, handing out the two cups of tea and one of coffee.

“A success!” they cheered loudly. I laughed, sitting with them to talk for a moment.

“Tell me then, what’s the story?” I always loved hearing what they had to say.

“Got ‘nough coin to keep us outta thievin’ for ’while, Host!” Brinley, the youngest of the three siblings, grinned with eyes bright with bliss.

“This lil’ guy got three guards in moments,” laughed Ella, the eldest and a youthful maiden. Her brown hair was untamed, much like her brothers, gaze just as wide and mischievous, too. “And Lucas here got five, not much slower either!”

“How much you’ve grown!” I praised, ruffling the boys’ hair, “Pickpockets to put anyone to shame!”

Brinley giggled in agreement. “Yeah!”

The middle boy, Lucas, smiled, baring his teeth. “He’s made us quite proud, Host.”

“I’m so proud of you all,” I said as I smiled, “Little pickpockets I’ve got to see grow up into such fine people.”

“If it weren’t for you, we’d been dead long ’go, Host,” Ella whispered with a beaming smile, “I still have to thank you.”

“You know well I couldn’t have left you, Ella,” I said, reaching out a hand to brush back a strand of hair from her face. “Never once have I regretted taking you three in.”

“Not even when I broke the window?” Lucas questioned.

“Or when I burnt your hand” Brinley added.

“Or when we all kept stealing from you?” Ella asked before I could respond to any of them.

“Why should I?” I spoke quickly, cutting off Lucas before he could add more, “You’re just kids, screwing around is in your blood. Besides, I wasn’t much better at your age.”

“Thanks, Host,” Lucas laughed playfully, leaning back in his chair.

“Of course,” I chuckled, rising to my feet. “Tonight we’ll celebrate, but for now I must get back to work, my dears.”

I lifted the tray from the table, stepping towards the next person. He was one of my birds, retrieving information for me by any means necessary. He stayed in the back room where everything is stored, waking every morning with me to help out, then retreat to his table nearest to the door. His long hair was a dull black, falling over his broad shoulders.

“Axel,” I said his name quietly, so not to startle him.

“Host…” he muttered.

I set a coffee down in front of him, brushing my hand over the back of his shoulder. He was nervous, as he always was. Hardly he accepted help. Even with me, he was always so hesitant. I never brought myself to ask what happened to make him this way, only some have reasons, after all.

“What would you like to eat?” I asked, keeping my voice hushed.

“Anything… please,” he all but begged.

“Of course, I’ll be as quick as I can,” I reassured.

I handed out the rest of what I had, greeting each patron by name. As I set down the last drink, a new face came in the door. I haven’t had any strangers here in awhile, but lately they’ve been flocking the door.

I had seen this man’s face before, drawn on wanted posters with a hefty reward for his head. Then again, most of the patrons have a price.

“Good morning, sir, welcome to The Crescent tavern, I’ll be your host. How may I serve you today?” I asked warmly, holding the empty tray flat in front of me.

“Good mornin’ young lady,” he purred with an odd gleam in his eye, “Gon’ take my coat or what?”

“You may hang hats and coats there,” I said as sweetly as I could muster, nodding my head to the stand beside the door.

“Ah, I see, ain’t gon’ serve a man, are ya?” he hissed, hanging his coat, but never taking an eye off of me, “Jus’ ’nother woman who don’t know ’er place.”

“My place is as host, not necessarily a servant,” I bit back, clenching tightly onto the tray.

“Is that treason I smell, woman?” he teased, baring his teeth is a devilish smile.

“Not to a King or Queen, just to you,” I retorted.

He laughed, turning directly to me. “And how ’ould you know I ain’t one those?”

“You reek of foul play and a bounty on your head, not money and fresh luxury,” I barked, turning from him with a flourish to return to the counter. “I suppose you’d be the man who killed the guard outside last night? Such a noisy mess if you were to ask me—” I looked back over my shoulder with a glare, “But I’m just a woman, aren’t I? I wouldn’t know a thing about murder, would I?”

His eyes sharpened, the brown dull and tired. “You want ta kill a man an’ make it quiet? Harder than it looks, babe.”

“You should address your host and with manners,” I snapped, “Nonetheless, you act like I’m the fool here. I’ve killed and I’ve stolen, so if you want to keep that worthless life of yours, get your goddamn act together!”

“Why not try and take it, lovely?”

I paused, holding his gaze. His grin turned to a smirk as he lifted his head, staring down his nose at me with a glare of pity. So I asked, “What’s your name, sir?”

“Gillionan—” Before he could finish I lunged forward, slamming his head against the doorframe. His eyes went blank before shutting and I let him drop to the floor. I leaned over to check and make sure there was no blood, then lifted myself up to full posture.

“Better wake up to get your coat, then you should get the hell out of my sight,” I spat, turning away.

The patrons who remained in their seats didn’t seem much surprised. The only one patron to have stood was a young thief, Phoenix, or that’s what he said his name was. He had only started appearing recently in here.

“Host, i-is he… he dead?” he stammered, blue eyes flashing to me.

I shook my head. “No, I’d rather not have blood stain my floor today.”

He nodded, slowly lowering himself again. I walked behind the counter, setting a small cake on a plate for Axel. I looked over the pastries that filled the space behind the glass before standing again. I walked back to Axel’s side, sitting across from him. He twisted his fingers together nervously, eyes flickering over the table.

I slid the plate closer to him, speaking softly, “If you would like more, I can always get you it. But I know that look, what did you find out?”

“The Black Vulture… was finally caught,” he choked out, “Or so says the King.”

I burst into laughter, leaning back in my chair. “If that damn fool did get caught, then hell better be freezing over!”

“Host, do you seriously you take this as a joke?” Axel hissed.

“Of course,” I confirmed as my voice dropped quiet enough for no one else to hear, “The Black Vulture isn’t one to so easily be caught. Besides, he has a bet to win.”

“A bet?”

I smiled, raising a finger to my lips. “Can’t quite say the details. I’ll tell you though, whoever gets caught first better be executed before the other gets to them. Do go on, though.”

Axel ushered out his next words with a nervous anxiety. “The King’s representative spoke in city center last evening… I would have told you then… but you weren’t here. But he said the Black Vulture was caught earlier that day…”

I laughed once more, scoffing out my next words on a hushed breath, “The Vulture out during day? That’s the only part of their name they don’t live up to. They work at night. Once the sun’s up, they’re off the map.”

“But…” Axel began hesitantly, “They mentioned a… a patron to the Black Vulture… they named him the Opal, after an old friend of the Vulture…”

That’s when I choked up. The plague had tethered the Vulture and I together. We work to keep the other covered, either that or we expose the other to keep ourselves safe. If he’s found out, then the King will pull any string until he unravels the Vulture entire world. All of this Axel knew.

“If it’s the Opal, they call him…” I recited Axel’s words, “Then they’re not far from the truth. I suppose I could pull enough strings to get them off the Vulture’s tail, for Opal’s sake…”

Axel nodded, taking a small bite from the cake. After swallowing it down, he spoke lowly, “And at what cost?”

“Not too high, just a night or two out,” I assured, “But I do have a favor I must ask of you, Axel.”

“Anything you need, Host,” Axel stated firmly.

I looked over my shoulder to Adisa. He was still hunched over the table, motionless yet still so distraught. I turned back to Axel, forcing my voice even quieter.

“Go to Adisa’s home for me, lead his family here, please,” I said, “I can tell you the way, but I can’t go on my own… I have much to do today.”

“I’ll leave now, if that’s fine by you?” Axel proposed.

“Yes, please do, let me get you the map.” At the end of my word I stood up carefully, slipping around the chair to push it back in.

I left Axel’s side to go upstairs, looking over my shoulder before disappearing through the door that kept the tavern and housing separate. Two beds were on the wall straight ahead from the door, four more on the wall to the right, each being big enough to sleep two men.

I unlocked and stepped through another door, slipping into my room. I opened a small drawer on the nightstand beside my bed, removing a rolled up map of our end of the city. Before I ran downstairs, I scanned over the wall beside the door. Cards were pinned to the wall, all designed after the figures I hosted.

Three wore dark gray cloaks, facing forward with the dull masks of a plague doctor staring back at those who met their void black eyes. Those three figures were at the top of the food chain, though one had a streak of red paint across her face. The Opal and the Black Vulture, the third having her name forgotten by the King and his people. The only one above them was my card, the neck down image of a maid holding a tray in front of her.

Below them was a figure cloaked in a dark green beside three women wearing revealing dresses. Axel, Idalia, Robin and Willow. Like the Host card, their portraits were all of the neck down. They were my birds.

The rank beneath them were cloaked in black with a string of coins falling from their exposed hands. Ella, Lucas and Brinley. My family, I suppose. There was another beside them, a card that held two figures, each tangled in each other’s arms, but I couldn’t even look at their card without wanting to scream.

The lowest rank was the rest of my patrons, all cloaked in the colors of gray, black or red; corresponding with their sins, grave robbing, thievery or murder. Not many took to killing, and if any did, most of the time they slipped up and wound up dead themselves. In between ranks and surrounding my precious food chain were my corrupt guards, clad in the King’s armor but following my rules.

I shook the thoughts from my head. I was getting distracted again. Quickly, I ran downstairs— locking both doors after me.

I noticed Gillionan finally getting up as my heel hit the tavern floor. He held his hand to the back of his head, wincing at the touch. I set the map in front of Axel before stalking towards the door.

“You didn’t make much of a sound,” I purred with a grin, staring up at Gillionan. He hit the wall as he stumbled back, reaching out for his coat.

I stepped closer, nearly pressed against him. I grabbed his coat first the same instant I forced his face closer to mine by the tug of his collar. The fear was so clear in his wide, brown eyes. It was always quite amusing to see some sinner afraid of another, as if they won’t end up in Hell together-- if Hell is true. I whispered into his ear as I stared back at him, “You’re lucky you’re not dead, sir.”

I handed him his coat and turned away. I heard the door slam after him and I walked back to Axel, staring over his shoulder to the map he unfolded.

I pointed at one of the buildings marked on the map, nodding. “That’s them. Ask for Ashia and when you have you, simply say the Host sent you. She knows who I am.”

Axel nodded, rising up. I stepped aside, watching his every move as he left the warmth of the tavern.

“Oh, sorry,” a familiar voice chirped from outside as Axel left.

I watched the doorway as a young man stepped inside, covered in dirt. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume he’d found himself in the graveyard. But he was simply a gardener.

“Tao!” I greeted, all but running forward to wrap him in my open arms.

“Hello!” he laughed, hugging me tightly, “It’s good to know your safe!”

“So, I presume you heard the news?” I asked, stepping back.

Tao nodded, then went on teasing, “This Opal patron, I hope they find him soon.”

The Opal and the Black Vulture, old Wolfsbane Plague doctors with only the means to play with death, not save. Such fun people, more stories than even my birds.

“The Vulture, caught by the King himself!” I chuckled with sarcastic pity.

“Tao!” Ella nearly screamed once she noticed him, leaping from her seat. She flung herself around him, almost shoving him into the wall.

Many eyes had already scanned over Tao, addressing him, knowing whether or not to trust. Many knew him by name, more simply by face.

“Ella!” he gasped, finding his balance.

Brinley and Lucas both wrapped themselves around Tao. I leaned against Axel’s empty chair, laughing quietly.

“It feels like they were just so little yesterday,” Tao pouted, patting Brinley on the head.

“And tonight we celebrate their biggest steal yet,” I informed, smiling.

“Oh?” Tao asked, looking at the three that surrounded him, “Well, I’ll be sure to make it here.”

“Really, you’d do that for us?” Ella asked slowly.

Tao nodded. “Why wouldn’t I?”

She only smiled, hugging him tighter. I stepped away from the table, ushering them all out of the way as another customer came in the door.

“Ah, Idalia, good morning, dear! Welcome back to The Crescent, how may I serve you today?” I chirped.

She smiled blissfully, drawing back her hood as she took in a deep breath. She ran her fingers through her blonde hair to push it back and released a soft breath. “Good morning, Host, I would like a cup of coffee— you know how I like it.”

“Right away,” I told her, swiftly turning to the counter.

As the three children went back to their table, Tao followed after me. I started the coffee, setting a stack of plates on the counter. I hummed an old nursery rhyme to myself as I worked, Tao standing patiently nearby.

“I’ve never met her before,” Tao finally whispered, “Tell me about her.”

A gentle laugh escaped my lips. “Her name is Idalia, one of my lesser regulars. She doesn’t come too often, and when she does she never stays for long. She tells a lot, though, all of it quite honest. One of my greatest birds, I suppose, gathering information from the source and flying it straight to me. She’s a sweetheart, lonely though.”

“Can I… talk to her?” he asked slowly.

“Of course! She loves a bit of conversation, besides, I have a few other patrons I need to talk with,” I answered, setting one of the small cakes on a plate. “Could you please get her coffee? The way she prefers is in the guest book by her name on the fifth page.”

“One of your first birds?” Tao asked.

I nodded as I began turning away, “She is. One of the few survivors from the dove age, too.”

Tao took my place behind the counter as I carried the cake to Phoenix. He had an empty coffee cup at his side, sitting silently in the table closest to the corner.

“If you would like more, I can always serve you however much you’d like, darling,” I said softly, taking the seat across from him.

“Oh, I-I’m fine, thank you…” he stammered out.

“So,” I began, “Tell me about yourself. We’ve hardly gotten a chance to talk at all, Phoenix.”

“I came here… well… I was hoping I could… work with you? The streets grow stricter every morning and every night, it’s getting harder out there… and I wanted to make an honest living for once…” he spoke with such a hushed voice, as if ashamed.

“This isn’t much of an honest living, dear,” I admitted, “Besides, I don’t want anyone working at my side. If the kingdom turns their gaze on us, I don’t want the rest to be caught as well. For you, I could spare some coins each day, but we’re all a little tight when it comes to silver and gold.”

“But I need to earn it!” Phoenix barked, slamming his fist against the table.

“You going out every night to steal for what you need is earning it,” I retorted sharply, “You put your life on the line, and for what? A drop of coin that doesn’t pay for a damn thing? A bite of an apple you can’t even taste because of the hunger? You’re life is worth more than that, Phoenix!”

He opened his mouth to speak, but he didn’t say a thing. I stood, hands pressed flat to the table. I had done this many times over, argued with so many of these children.

“Please, stay here as long as you need,” I insisted, “I can keep you off the streets for some time at least.”

“W-What do I owe you?” he stuttered, staring at me with blue eyes wide.

I let out a slow breath. He stared back at me, mouth agape. His red hair was a mess, tangled with dirt and twigs. He was scrawny, probably only stealing from vendors and the weaker. Such a shame. It was no wonder he wanted to make an honest living.

“How about a story?” I asked, sitting back down.

“I-Is that all?” He seemed taken aback at the least.

“My currency is stories or information,” I told him, “It’s how everyone pays for things here, that or they do a few small favors for me now and again.”

Phoenix nodded in understanding. “I don’t know many stories… can I tell you my version of the Black Vulture and the Opal? I-I’m sure you… y-you’ve heard it, but—”

“Tell me how you know it,” I said softly, “I do love hearing the variants.”

“The Black Vulture was a plague doctor, and one of the best, too, during the Wolfsbane Plague of four years ago. They were at the top of the food chain, and no one could get close to them,” Phoenix began the story the same as anyone else, “But after the plague, they wanted to go further. They began digging up the bodies of the people they never cured, trying to use the cure they found to bring them back to life. It never did work. So they resorted to digging up any body, trying relentlessly to learn about death… and how to reverse it.

“They still roam the graveyard, alive and well. But now, they have a patron, an old friend from the plague days. The Opal, they call him. The Black Vulture never removes his mask, and neither does the Opal. Together, they unbury old bodies, trying to pull their souls back from heaven or hell, all in the name of reincarnation,” Phoenix ended his story there, his silence being patient refusal to go on.

“I haven’t heard that before, the doctor wanting to find a cure to death,” I admitted, “That’s quite interesting, dear.”

“D-Do you… know the… the truth?” he asked carefully.

I nodded. “I believe so, but it’s much more sinister than that, if you’d like to hear it.”

“Yes!” Phoenix gasped, all too eagerly.

“The Black Vulture indeed was a plague doctor from the Wolfsbane Plague, the top predator of their era. They reigned above life and death, nothing less than a god of medicine. And their dear Opal, he was right there beside him, a god of all sorts of trickery. During their time, they feasted well, making deals in only gold. But the Black Vulture found no cure. No one did. To him and his Opal, it was never about curing anyone. Still, those who worshipped the good doctor, they all said it was they who ended it,” I paused for a moment, Phoenix clinging onto every word.

“After the plague, the Opal became a patron to the Black Vulture, being his overlooker, I suppose. And the Vulture, they were a grave robber, digging up any body of any age for the right price. But it was before the plague the Black Vulture committed their sins, and during the when the Opal joined in. Anything for a coin or two.

“The Black Vulture nor the Opal never cared much for life or death, and so their job is more a game than anything. Rumor in the church has it, God won’t let them in Heaven out of hate, no matter how much forgiveness they ask for… but Satan refuses them entrance to Hell out of fear for what they’ve found.“”

“Really? How do you know all this? Were you here during the plague? How did your survive it?” Phoenix questioned, curious as a child should be.

“I was here, yes. I survived in isolation, to say the least… but let’s just say I’ve found myself with the Black Vulture and the Opal once or twice,” I answered with a wink before standing.

Before Phoenix could speak again, the door was suddenly pushed open and a young woman shoved four children inside as she held tightly onto a fifth. Axel stood behind them, glancing at me. He looked over his shoulder before ushering them all in and closing the door.

“Ashia, I’m glad to see you all made it here,” I greeted, swiftly walking to her. I heard Adisa shove himself up, knocking over his chair in haste as he ran to her side.

“Ashia, darling, you’re all okay… I’m so happy…” Adisa gasped, moving behind her to wrap his arms around her waist.

“Yes, we’re just fine,” she assured him, “Made it out with time to spare.”

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Ashia,” I said, “Would you like anything to eat or drink?”

“No, but thank you, Host,” she whispered shyly.

“Very well,” I replied with a smile, starting to walk away. I called to her over my shoulder, “Come with me, I’ll lead you to the spare beds. If you need anything during your stay, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“You’re too kind, Host,” Ashia sighed as she followed. “It’s going to catch up with you one of these days.”

I looked back at her, standing on the first step. “When it does, it does. Nothing I can do to stop it.”

I wiped a towel over the counter, looking over each table to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Idalia sat with Tao, both laughing and talking happily. This was the longest she had stayed with us. Axel sat with Ella, Lucas and Brinley, finally relaxing. He never did like busy days.

Adisa and his family were getting settled in upstairs. I could hear their muffled voices and footsteps through the thin walls, echoing throughout the tavern.

“Host!” Idalia called out, tapping her finger on the table, “Come join us for a bit!”

“I suppose I could,” I answered with a smile, walking over to her and Tao’s table.

“So, how did you and Tao meet? He doesn’t seem like someone you’d go along with,” Idalia said, folding her hands in front of her, “Not to mention he’s from the East, foreigners don’t take much of a liking to you from what I’ve seen.”

I laughed at her words. “He did meet me under a different name than the Host, but it’s still a story I enjoy telling.”

“Oh? And what name was that?” Idalia was always quite the curious spirit.

“That’s a secret,” I chuckled with a wink.

“Another secret to be kept from me?” Idalia pouted teasingly, “My, what a surprise!”

“We formally met during the plague,” Tao told her with bright eyes and a wide grin, “I gave the doctors rose and mint to keep them from breathing in the bad air. I worked closely with the Host, actually.”

I shot Tao a quick glare, not wanting him to slip up. There were details to the plague affairs no one needs to unbury. Not him, not me, and certainly no one else. He nodded subtly, setting two fingers over his lips, still smiling though.

Despite the gaping hole in our story, we weaved it together. I took over from him, speaking softly, “Tao and I would often meet to trade herbs and such. I’d give him tea mixtures for whatever I needed. It was only him and I it seemed, we became rather quick friends during the nightly deals.”

“Interesting,” Idalia commented, “Did Tao help you start this little place?”

She gestured to the tavern, though held my gaze. I winced at the question, my lips tightening together. The nostalgia of the good days was always in the air here, but I never wanted memories stirred up with it.

“He and I didn’t know one another when I began this place. It was another old friend who helped begin The Crescent,” I answered.

“Ah, I see now,” she said, nodding, then folded her hands on the table in front of her.

I looked through the small window on the door, the flickering flame of our light taunting the night’s darkness. I shook my head, releasing the small breath I held back. It was over now, I just have to keep telling myself that.

“I best put out the lantern before anyone begins to suspect us,” I said, using the excuse to leave the table. I walked heavily over to the door, shoving it open and leaning outside.

A dark silhouette stalked down the cobblestone, hunched in their coat with their head down. I stared for a moment as they seemed to shift their shadowed gaze up. They were familiar in a way. I smiled at them, then put out the lantern.

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