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Steel Pennies

“Don’t sit in Pop’s chair,” June said into a standing mirror. Cabbage pushed the chair back under the table. In their dining room, it was always dusk. The room had become a place she passed through but never stopped and stayed in—a place she saw every day but had forgotten about. Pops’ military saber sat in dust on the mantle. A pile of grey ash in the fireplace hadn’t been touched since winter. Briar shrubs had grown over the windows and every floorboard seemed to creak against the silence. “Baby brother, lightening has struck Hastings in the form of Wesley Chambers,” she continued. “That villain will see the guillotine even if I have to drag him across the continent by the short hair on his ass.”

Cabbage let his legs hang off the table behind her. There was an open honey jar—that he’d hopefully not stolen from market—he kept plunging his hand into. He slurped at his fingers before the gold dripped to the floor. His sunburn had tanned into peeling skin on the bridge of his nose.

“So you’re going to bring Wesley Chambers to the Kingdom, they’re going to cut his head off, and we’ll be rich?”

June smiled at him in the mirror.

“It ain’t about money, it’s what money can buy,” she said, raising her chin to button her father’s jacket against her neck. “I’m going to give Wesley Chambers to the King and the King is going to give us the man who put Mum and Pops underground.” Cabbage’s crossed-eyes stared at nothing in front of him. His tongue dug honey out from the corner of his lip. “I will pay to have that man found and killed, legally, in the court of law.”

“And then you can rest easy?” Cabbage asked.

“And then I can rest easy.”

“So you don’t want to be in the Blackguard anymore?”

“I’ll buy the Blackguard.”

She laced the leather work boots hard up her shins and tucked her pants into them. The gold buttons of her father’s jacket slipped through the seams with ease—her chest compensated for her narrow shoulders. She buttoned the navy blue coat double-breasted, snug all the way to her waist. She was her father, staring back in the mirror, minus the scruff on his cheeks. Her black hair even parted where his used to. The parts of Pops she didn’t see in herself—the gaunt cheeks and pointed nose—she had gotten from her mother. Here they were, both standing in her boots.

A single framed photograph leaned on the mantle—it had been snapped by a picturebox that a man had brought from Kingdom. It was the only thing she had to remind her what their parents had looked like. The ink was smudged and blurry, but whenever she looked at it, she could remember him teaching her how to make flapjacks on Saturday mornings over last night’s coals.

“You stay safe now,” she said to Cabbage. A thin string of honey hung off the left corner of his mouth. “And wipe your mouth off.”

Cabbage scrunched the freckles on his nose.

She slipped the photo out of the frame. Some part of her imagined it would turn to dust in her hands and she’d forget how they looked. The photograph was cracking at the edges. She flipped it over, from one flat palm into another.

Happy Birthday June love Mum and Pops.

She pressed it flat between the gold leaf pages of a bible and put it at the bottom of her rucksack.

“I didn’t know them much, so, I guess I’m not as angry as you,” Cabbage said. “I can’t even remember them.”

She pulled the straps of her rucksack shut.

“They loved you,” she said.

“Sis?” Cabbage asked as she walked towards the door. “In case you die in the Vesper, can you tell me what Mom and Pops really named me?” He twisted a pinky in his ear. “I know it ain’t Cabbage.”

She turned in the doorway, holding the strap at her shoulder.

“Shut up, Cabbage. I’m not gonna die.”

“Do you think this is what Mum and Pops would have wanted?”

“It’s what I want.”

The sky was a sort of lame, buttermilk dawn between clouds. She stomped through knee-high grass because the goats had apparently lost their appetite. Her rucksack got caught on a barb of chicken wire but didn’t tear. The ocean blasted its spray up the cliffs but only a cool mist—almost a sigh of damp air—touched her face. She stood with a hand on each headstone and looked out over the sea.

“Mum, Pops, don’t really know what to say here—I think I’m doing the right thing, so I guess that’s that.” She knelt and kissed the “Foster” engraving on both of their headstones and set off down the trail, carrying the crown of her head high as she crossed the field into town, past the blacksmith’s red window where a clang filled the space between houses. Nobody had bothered to pick up the apples in the road and they were squashed all into the cobblestone. A long-nosed merchant, whose stacks of wide-eyed haddock already sweat in the morning sun, wheeled cuts of veil past her on a squeaky carriage.

“Everythin’s half off,” the young man said to her, squinting beneath a hand he used to block the sun. They were the only two in the road. He set down the carriage handles along the canal and watched saltwater ebb and flow past the useless, mossy waterwheel that did not so much as tick to either side. June shrugged off the rucksack and rubbed the back of her shoulder. She never spoke to these kinds of traveling half-beggars but hadn’t eaten since last night. She drew out a single brass coin with the side portrait of King Gallant’s face etched onto its surface.

“What’ll this get me?”

“A couple fine slabs of elk jerky,” he said, eyeing the caravan at the end of the trail. “Great for traveling, it don’t go bad like me fish will.” He shaved a generous amount into her bag and sprinkled two grey coins into her palm. “Sorry about the change. There’s a copper shortage Kingdomside—all of it was melted down into weaponry for the Vesper war. They marched a hundred swords into the deep Vesper wood in early spring, had a whole damned parade for it; none of them came out. I reckon they’ll never colonize that savage morass.” He scratched the back of his head. “Right, but anyways most of the smaller coins are forged in steel now. I promise they ain’t counterfeit, I’m no cheat.”

She followed his curious gaze to the mossy waterwheel.

“How long’s that been broken?” he asked.

“My Pops stopped fixing it about eight years ago.” June squinted at the tailor’s daughters—both around her age—strolling past in yellow dresses with yellower hair hanging down in curls; they giggled with sun shining on their faces. June spat in the dirt.

“Well, tell him everything would be much better around here if he got around to it.” They watched a chicken wander out from underneath a porch and peck at absolutely nothing in the dirt. “You must be excited to leave Hastings; excited to eat something other than corn.”

“I like corn,” she said, clutching the strap of her rucksack as she hurried away, “but I am excited to leave Hastings. Only condition was I had to get engaged to a drunk.” The coins were freshly cut by a smith. She blew steel dust from their ridges. Handsome features of King Gallant’s face were struck into the steel with chiseled permanence.

“They were talking about your little stunt at the pub,” he hoisted the carriage handles. “You understand that married women are property, right? That contract you signed was a commercial relation. That man owns you now.”

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