“Sheriff, do I have to wear this costume?” June asked.
“Don’t call me Sheriff,” Sheriff said. “Not here.”
June pulled at her skirt, trying to stretch the purple fabric down her leg. It was useless. Luckily, Kensington spared her the humiliation of wearing just the skirt, for now she was at least wearing it over her pants. Her father’s sabre rested snug along her thigh on the inside of her pant leg. Cool metal hugged her from the hip to the knee; the lavender hem of her skirt draped over the hilt, and with every step the handle chafed against her hip. And so she limped down the hill, looking like a whore with a wooden leg. Her father’s boots shamefully matched the outfit in a way they were never intended to, laced all the way up her shins and stopping just below the knees. The gypsy sleeve fit like a shiny sock over both arms that just happened to cover the front of her breasts. She stepped down the hill sideways to avoid falling. The Sheriff managed to look even more ridiculous than her in his loose orange and blue silks. He looked younger without his uniform.
They crept down a dried-up waterfall, into what used to be a lagoon. A swamp glowed blue into the distance around them and the air got more and more sour with rotten grass. At the bottom of the hill, shirtless goons wrangled a boar in front of the tavern. Three held it down on its side as another wrapped a rope around its hooves. A man produced a stone knife from his back pocket. June looked to the ground. The boar squealed like a little girl, then didn’t.
“You don’t have to worry about anything,” Kensington said, “These are people just like you and me, only they kill for money. Just don’t call me Sheriff in front of them,” Sheriff said—he spoke quieter now that they were almost to the bottom.
“They’re maggots,” she said, pulling the purple fabric higher on her chest.
A warm gust blew across her stomach. She slapped a mosquito on her belly, and then another. She hated the paleness of her skin, and the way her ribs jut out from her frame was not something she was proud of. Pops had once said there were Kingdom girls that wanted to be skinny—as if it were some choice. She pinned the heel of her boot on a bulging root for balance and lowered her other leg down.
“The coward we’re trying to hire is named Chester Hemlock,” Sheriff said. “I will do all of the talking. You don’t break character the entire evening. Understood?”
June sat on her rear and scuttled down a steep face of granite. When she got back to her feet, the Sheriff’s long face stared down at her—he was hard to take seriously without the uniform and badge.
“What?” she asked. “Yeah, I understand.”
They walked across a long patch of blue moss. Ahead, long stilts rose out of the bog, holding up a rickety wooden fishing shack. June could tell how high the water level used to be, on account of the dark stains coating the stilts for ten feet above the waterline. They walked along a skinny pitch of land, between blue patches of lily pads that looked as if they were placed on a sheet of glass.
A sweaty hand gripped her bare shoulder.
“Smile for me real quick, darling.”
For some reason she did.
“What are you doing?”
Kensington rubbed a rock of coal under her eyes.
“It’s just charred wood from the fire we had a few nights back. Vesper coal. You already have the dirty un-bathed look, but this will add the sparkling inner-forest dazzle that gypsy wenches have for make-up,” Kensington said, with apparent expertise in the dazzle of un-bathed road traveling wenches. He rubbed it on some of her teeth. “I’ll blot out some of your teeth so they’ll look missing or rotten. Of course, I’ve got the only girl in Hastings with a full set of teeth. I don’t need any help being ugly, that’s why you’re the only one whose gotta do this.”
“You’re painting me like a dirty harlot?”
His smile widened, and for some reason it charmed her, it was a real smile, and even though it was mean-spirited and at her expense, it felt like something he felt was actually shining through for once.
“Let’s go,” Sheriff said, hands on his hips—he wore the sorriest orange tights that made his legs seem longer, thinner.
“Your legs look nicer than mine,” she said.
He turned to her and winked.
They continued along. Red maple trees reached out of the ground every couple of paces, and looked as though they held up the ceiling of branches above. A film of pollen collected along the shoreline, it was the color a full moon reflects on fresh snow. Toadstools seemed to breath, inflating and deflating as if they slept beside her boots. She looked up. And stopped in her tracks.
They hung with white and green fireflies drifting lazily between their legs. More than the entire population of Hastings, strung up by their necks for all to see. She looked straight up at their heels.
Kensington pulled her along by the wrist.
“They don’t call him Jimmy Gallows for nothing,” he whispered. “Now look sharp and stop fidgeting with the sleeves, you look fine.”
She let go of the purple knot at her chest, unaware she’d even been ruffling it between her fingers.
“Don’t look at my chest.”
“I’m half blind…” he reminded her.
“Stop half lookin’ at my,” her voice cracked, “my chest.”
“Relax,” he said.
Mangled bodies hung from every elbow of every tree. Some were fresh with knives pinned in their chests. Others were skeletal with rotting skin hanging off. All nameless… many of them must have left orphaned children like her parents had.
She looked straight ahead.
“Can you judge me for drinking?” Sheriff asked, rather soberly.
Sheriff sniffed and scraped crust from his nose as they walked. She pressed her hands against the bare skin of her abs, not knowing what else to do with them as they got closer to the shack; she wished she had pockets to plunge her hands.
Noise came from inside the house. Merrymaking. Whatever monsters waited inside were in having a grand time. They sang like commoners at a Hastings pub—apparently even villains could be in good spirits from time to time.
She walked around the group of shirtless men. A pile of logs and broken boards burned at shoulder height beside the group. They hardly looked up from tying the dead boar. One of them had thrown a knot of rope over a low hanging branch. They pulled the rope hand under hand. The dead animal hung by the back legs, snout lifting off the ground until it hung like a still pendulum over the fire, black flies swirling around it, snout burning to black leather. Her eyes went elsewhere, as if she was eight years old and had just foolishly stared into the sun. She crossed her arms.
The end of a plank was jammed into the dirt; it stretched gradually up over the water to the front porch. Kensington didn’t even slow his pace, he just stepped right onto the damned thing and made his way up towards the shack. She let him take a few fool’s steps ahead to see if anyone would care, then stepped on. It shook with her steps and with his as they climbed over the bog. The wood sagged with a whisper of cracking in the middle, but she kept her eyes down on black boots until they stood on front steps that reached into open air.
The fishing shack was constructed poorly of fallen trees. Notches were aligned at the corners but the framing of timber wasn’t aligned. The trees weren’t shaped perfectly straight. She could stick her entire arm between a gap in the wall. Smoke seeped from that gap. Two braziers hung from the alcove above the front door with green flames spiraling inside their bowls. She kept her hands pressed to her stomach.
“Green flames means vacant,” Sheriff said. “Gallows isn’t here, just his henchmen, or whatever you call these people.”
The front stairs were crooked. Each step disagreeing with the next. She made her way up to the stoop with her hands on the railing.
A man in a brown top hat sat on the porch. He leaned back in a rocking chair with long legs up on the railing. Two fires danced on the dark lenses he wore in front of his eyes. He pushed his legs against the railing so that he could lean far enough back to knock four times on the wall. Another man in a brown top hat and matching brown trench coat cracked the door, slipped through, and closed the door behind him.
“And what ragtag company is this be?” the second man asked. He was dressed in all the fanciness of a Kingdom salesman, except muddier and odious. A butcher knife was tucked blade first into the ribbon of his cap, where a feather might have been. His eyes were black and he spit a cheek-full of something blacker at their toes. He pulled the rusted chain of a pocket watch from his vest. “Better not be business, Jimmy said we can’t take no jobs until they kill that Chambers boy.”
Kensington puffed his chest out.
“We’re here to see Hemlock, our business is our own.”
The man smiled. He looked to the man in the rocking chair. The man in the rocking chair smiled. Both lifted pistols from their coats. Neither turned the safety off.
“Brothah and Sistah, you come knockin’ at the door of Jimmy Gallows, you bettah prepare to explain your business.”
The group in the front yard had turned around and begun to stare. She let her hand slowly over the handle of her father’s sabre. Everyone on the porch flinched as Kensington reached into his tunic. He drew out a jug of moonshine—the jug he’d pulled out of a rotten codfish’s stomach.
“I got no business,” Kensington declared.
The doorman placed his hand on Kensington’s shoulder and smiled with black gums. A tooth along the bottom row of his mouth was missing.
“Well why didn’t you folks say so? Come on in, then! Hemlock isn’t back yet but feel free to meander about—God knows that’s all we ever do.”
The door swung diagonally on its hinges into a smoke-filled parlor where everyone seemed to be talking over each other. A harmonica played a slow tune somewhere under the hum of conversation. Green flames choked in basket-like cressets along the walls. A heavy tangle of antlers hung from the ceiling like a wood chandelier. Someone slapped her butt. There was nowhere to stand without being in the way, so she just walked forward, between people, following the Sheriff without making eye contact with anyone. It smelt of booze and hickory chew and pine and varnish and puke but not bad; she liked it the way she liked the smell of manure. She squinted through the haze to see in front of her. The unevenness of the floor was equally as disorienting; she’d find herself ducking just under the ceiling in some places and unable to reach up to hanging braziers in others. Blue weeds from the swamp could be seen through missing floorboards. She tucked her elbows into her side to squeeze through the heavy crowds. Naked dregs sprawled out on furniture, unconscious from mouthfuls of that noxious black substance in their mouths. She watched a balding woman carefully lift a canteen out of an unconscious man’s grasp. Beer-girls pranced between the guests, throwing their heads back in throaty coughs.
A hand ran up the trim of her skirt. She spun to see a wrinkled old man grinning. The old bastard tucked a thumb into the front pocket of his shirt and winked. His bottom lip was packed so full with something that it pulled his mouth to a frown.
“How about a throw?” he said.
She ignored him.
“Lass,” he said. “I said how about a throw.”
“You’re gonna have to pay top coin for a ripe little ass like this,” she repeated the words of Wesley Chambers. The onlookers cackled at the old man and the banter was accepted as natural. She grabbed a fistful of the Sheriff’s silk tunic and followed him through the crowd. A big eyed woman pushed a bucket of black mulch into her chest. The dark grains smelt of the hickory skulking in the humid air. She declined. Sheriff accepted.
They pushed through a moth-eaten fur tapestry nailed above the doorframe. She breathed fresh air on the balcony. They overlooked a small drop into the blue swamp, with the canopy of trees weaving into a roof above. A spray of the moon—or maybe sun—peeked through in white spears onto the pond. A tiny fish made a ripple along the water, and then another one, and all the yelling from inside returned to being one droning noise once the tapestry fell back over the door. She leaned on a railing, but feeling how unsteady it was, decided to just stand under her own weight.
“Let’s stay out here and maintain a low profile until Hemlock gets back,” Kensington said.
Another hot breeze swept in from the forest’s intestines. She pulled the gypsy top a bit higher on her chest so her cleavage wasn’t as prominent. Sheriff reached a hooked finger and gaffed the fabric on her chest, sliding it back down to a more revealing fashion. That was the second time in as many minutes she’d been touched without asking.
“A little skin can be the difference between life and death out here,” Sheriff said. She could feel herself flushing. For a while she just stared out over the marsh. Eventually, he was standing beside her, and placed a lump of coal on the railing. He scratched away its layers with the nail of his thumb. Small flecks of blue sparkled underneath the layers. It was the beginning formation of some crystal dust. She’d seen it before with pearls inside clams.
“Your father was prettier than you. But he used to wear that same sodden expression on his face as well,” Sheriff said, brushing little blue flecks down onto the water. “I’ve said this phrase a million times to your father and now I can say it to you: Chin up, Foster.” He handed her the shiny lump of soot.
“I’m worried about Dana, back in Hastings,” she finally said. “I forgot to remind him to tend to the goat milk.”
“How old were you when you took over the pasture for your Mom and Pops?”
“It’s his time now, let this be yours.” She pushed the crystalized bits around in her palm, and then leaned on the unsteady railing. “If you put anything under enough pressure, you can squeeze something beautiful out of it.”