“And what sort of time do you call this?”
Thoster chuckled to himself as he slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind him, as to not wake the younger ones. His sister played the part of a nagging wife and mother much better than anyone he’d ever met. It was no wonder he had yet to find a lass worth courting. With Shaylee in his life, he’d have all he ever needed of shouting about his whereabouts.
“I made it home in one piece, didn’t I? And we both know you saved supper for me.” He flashed his sister a smile. She only rolled her eyes, but it seemed to have the desired effect as she pulled out a bowl of lukewarm stew and slid it onto the table, motioning for him to sit.
“They tried waiting up for you.” Shaylee said, her annoyance slipping away into a more conversational tone. “Nearly fell asleep on each other before I shooed them off to bed and told them I’d send you in when you made it home.”
Thoster glanced over his shoulder towards the back rooms before turning back to raise the spoon to his lips. Living in a house with three of his siblings was not the way most young men pictured their adult lives beginning. For Thoster, it was the way things had always been, and he saw little need to change it. Shaylee, being the eldest, kept the house in order and the rest of them in line. Thoster shared the responsibility of the household with her ever since their mother died three years back. He was only twenty, but had done a bit of growing up in that time. The younger ones, Kip and Annabelle were only twelve and ten, eager to help where they could, but still very young in many ways.
“Let them sleep. I’ll have stories for them in the morning.” He replayed the old man’s story from the tavern. A gem to make a man so rich that he’d never want for money again? A stone that held an unpredictable power that could be your undoing if you didn’t have luck on your side? His younger brother and sister would demand the story be told again and again until he was blue in the face.
“You can’t keep staying out all night, you know.” She kept her back to him, talking as she cleaned furiously. Thoster just laughed absently. He had heard this a few times before, and while he appreciated her worry, he wasn’t about to stop having his fun. The laughter caused Shaylee’s back to stiffen, though, and she turned around very quickly to glare at him. “And who will take care of them if I’m gone and you’re off gallivanting around town?”
“Planning a trip, Shay?” It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his sister’s feelings, but humor was just part of him. It diffused many situations, he’d found, but the ones that it didn’t, escalated very quickly. Unfortunately, this was one of the latter.
“I’ve asked Matthew to marry me.” Matthew was a good man that had grown up with the lot of them. He was only a year or so older than Shaylee and had been courting her for what felt like an eternity. Thoster had no question in his mind that the man’s intentions with his sister were honorable. They loved one another in a way that was simple, understated.
“What? Get down on one knee and everything?”
“So what if I did?” One hand at her hip, he knew better than to goad his sister further. Shaylee’s temper was well known by no one more than Thoster. He sat back in his chair and studied her, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. Women didn’t go around asking men to marry them much, but the fact that his sister had made perfect sense.
“I take it he said yes? He ought to. Have to be an idiot to let you go.” Thoster stood and grinned at her, stepping around the table to get to her and put a fond hand on her shoulder. For as much as they fought, Thoster did care deeply for his sister. The way she picked up the mantle after their mother passed was not lost on him. He knew that she kept this house running so that he wouldn’t have to worry about it, but it seemed all that was changing now. She’d move in with Matthew, start a family with him, and start a life that she’d missed out on for the sake of her younger siblings.
He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. It didn’t matter that she was older or that she had far more of her life sorted than he likely ever would. Thoster felt protective of all of them. Before she died, their mother had pulled him close and made him promise to keep them safe. He was still barely more than a boy at the time, but when he agreed, he meant it with the full power of his heart.
“I can’t take them with me, Thoster.” Shay was quiet when she said it. He realized then that she had thought about it, had possibly even discussed taking their siblings with her. Matthew was a good man, a patient man, but the Chatwyn children were not exactly the easiest to keep in line, and Kip was a quickly growing boy who ate enough for ten men most days.
“Of course you can’t.” He pulled back and shook his head, a little baffled that she had thought it was necessary to say it. Sure, he was a selfish bastard from time to time, but he could never expect her to carry along the two siblings they shared responsibility for. “I’ll look after them. Don’t you worry.”
The next morning, Thoster awoke with a start. As his eyes flew open, the familiar sight of bouncing, honey colored curls obstructed his view of the room. Little Annabelle had leaped into his bed and made claim of her older brother’s chest, hugging him tightly and resting her ear near his heart, which was no doubt racing from his surprise. As realization set in, Thoster calmed his breathing and reached a hand to comb back the unruly mess of her hair.
“And a good morning to you as well.” He said, mocking his tone to be more cross than he actually was. The youngest child knew better, though, and only nuzzled against him with a small laugh.
“Kip says you’ve slept enough.” She mumbled against his shirt.
“Does he now? A shame he’s not brave enough to come tell me himself…” Thoster raised his tone, knowing that the young boy had to be near.
“I am too!” The voice came before the sight of him, stubborn chin jutted out in indignation. “I just know you won’t hit her if she wakes you.” He was clever for his age, too clever for his own good most days.
Thoster managed to coax Annabelle to let go of him, promising to tell them the most wonderful story when he came down for breakfast. The two were gone in a flash, shouting for Shaylee that they had accomplished their task. The true mastermind behind the quick start to his morning was revealed.
With all four of them gathered in one place, Thoster had to wonder how strange it must be to meet them for the first time as a family. The four children shared the same mother, but none had the same father. Their mother, Alice, was not the type to settle for anything less than what she thought she deserved. She took lovers because they made her feel alive, or so she said. Thoster always wondered if she was simply too afraid to fall in love.
Shaylee took after their mother the most, long limbs and straw colored hair. It was pin straight and left long for most of her childhood. When their mother had passed, Shaylee had cut it off in grief, but in three years time, it had grown past her shoulders. Annabelle’s hair was darker than their mothers and curled so tightly, they joked she must have been born of a spring. Kip had the palest skin of all of them, which turned a painful red when he played in the sun too long. His auburn hair shifted with the season, darkening in the winter and turning an incredibly bright red as summer came around. Thoster was the strangest of them, with darker complexion and coarse black hair kept short. Among the four of them, only one common thread carried through from their mother. They all had sweet Alice’s eyes, soft, brown, and forgiving. It was those eyes that won her so many suitors, and it helped her children get nearly anything they wanted.
“Glad to see you up and about.” Shaylee commented as Thoster entered the kitchen and found his seat at the table. The room was filled with delicious smells from the breakfast she had cooked for the lot of them. The market rarely had fresh eggs, but it must have been their lucky morning, as Thoster watched the plates dished out and set before them.
“Aye, it was such a lovely way to greet the day.” As he answered, he combed his fingers into Annabelle’s curls and ruffled them lightly. The girl let out a squeal of a laugh, beaming up at him. He had no defense for her smile and she was well aware of it by now. Thoster simply chuckled and picked at the food on his plate. The ale from the night prior was strong and his stomach still rolled from the volume that he had consumed. More than that, his head was throbbing. He knew by now that putting food in him would quell both troubles, but it was hard to convince himself to push through the discomfort. Sensing this, Shaylee nudged the plate closer to him.
“Eat. You’re taking a trip to the city today and you’ll need your wits about you.”
“Am I? And when were you planning on telling me?” It wasn’t an odd request. Technically, they lived within the city already, but it was a different place that Shaylee meant he was going. The rougher parts of town were prime for earning a bit of quick coin without many questions asked. He was no thief, but when it came to feeding his brother and sisters, Thoster knew that some men could use with a few less gold pieces in their pouch. He’d found that on a good day, he didn’t need to trick anyone out of their money. Some folks would hand it over freely if he sang them a tune. Those were the days he felt like the money was truly earned, but it wasn’t consistent enough to depend on.
“I’ve told you now, haven’t I?” Shaylee’s words were firm, even if an apology lingered in her eyes. He knew she didn’t like asking him to go, but there was only so much she could do to trade in the market. Between the two of them, they managed to keep themselves with enough to get by, but each day felt like a bit of a struggle.
“Well, it seems my stories will have to wait, I’m afraid.” Both Kip and Annabelle raised up in protest, but Thoster silenced them with a shake of his head. “Ah, ah- the quicker I leave, the quicker I’ll be able to return. Now I want you to be on your best behavior today while I’m gone. Don’t give Shay any trouble and get this place cleaned up. If she tells me you’ve been good? Well, I’ll be sure to tell you the most fantastic story you’ve ever heard.”
He knew they were disappointed to have him leave so soon, but the promise of a story was enough to keep their complaints at bay for now. He assumed that once he left, Shaylee would be forced to deal with a bit more sulking, but she had her ammunition to motivate them for hours on end.
Once breakfast was finished, he dressed in plain clothes and slid a pouch with a modest few coins on his belt. He didn’t mind a good bet and could easily double the money he brought with him if the odds were right. On his way out the door, Thoster was nearly barreled over by Annabelle, who claimed one final hug before he left for a day’s work.
“Be careful.” She said quietly, which made Thoster wonder just how much his younger siblings truly knew about what he did out there in the world. He and Shaylee had worked hard to shield the little ones from the harder parts of their life, but as they grew up, he knew that they were bound to figure some things out without any confirmation.
“I’m always careful, Annie. Nothing to worry about.” He flashed her a grin and wrapped her up in a quick embrace before setting her down and patting her back gently. “Run along now. And don’t forget what I said about minding your sister.” Annabelle nodded, curls bouncing before she ran off to find Kip. Thoster straightened just in time to see Shaylee holding out a pack for him. He turned a questioning gaze towards her.
“Some of her jewelry. No sense keeping it and you’ll be able to sell it better than I ever could.” He opened the pack and looked through a few of the necklaces, recalling the way his mother looked when she wore them. His fingers trailed over a few stones, and for a very brief moment, he thought about protesting. One ring caught his eye, a silver band with a blue stone. Taking it in his hands, he rolled the item over in silent appraisal before holding it out for Shaylee to take.
“Keep it. For Annabelle.” The rest, he tucked safely into the pack and slung over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before sundown.” Sometimes he stayed all night, finding morally questionable citizens to sneak a few coins from, or singing sweet songs to drunken men and women who were inclined to tip a minstrel heavily. Today, he wasn’t interested in selling himself for longer than necessary. Each visit to this particular part of town reminded him how close he was to being no better than a common thief.
As he walked, Thoster whistled a tune to himself to lift his spirits, a clear sound piercing the bustling city air as he strolled through respectable areas and turned towards less reputable streets. He was well known in all parts of the city, a man that made an impression with his words and actions. He offered a quick smile to anyone who wished him a good morning, and tossed a wink towards any pretty girl who crossed his path. The longer he walked, the more comfortable he felt in his own skin. It made it all the easier to fall into the role he knew he would have to play.
It was early yet, and that meant that many of his usual acquaintances were still sound asleep. Thoster would call none of them friends, but knew their worth for the work he needed to do. The jewelry, though… That he could sell without their help. He stopped on one of the busier streets and pulled open the pack to look over the jewelry once more. The sentimental part of him hoped that no one would want a fair enough price for it, but he knew better. He could sell it for twice of what it was worth with the right story. The memories attached to the trinkets weren’t worth the hunger his brother and sister would feel if he didn’t fetch the right price for them.
“Sorry, can I have a look at that?” Hours had passed, bringing out the late risers. Thoster was so lost in his own thoughts that he missed the approach of the man. Glancing up, he took in the sight of him quickly, trying to assess the sort of tale he should weave.
He looked to be in his fifties, hands weathered from manual labor. His hair was long, a light shade of brown with slight graying around his temples, and combed back away from his face. He carried no visible weapons. In fact, nothing of his belongings were all that impressive except for his jacket. It was black, hanging at hip length with gold threaded accents along the collar. Each gold button gleamed in the early morning sun.
“Of course.” He handed the necklace over, a thin gold chain with green and white stone strung all around. Thoster could remember his mother bringing it home, a gift from a man who wished to marry her. It had been the last time he had seen her truly happy before she had fallen ill. He let the chain linger in his hands for only a moment longer than he should have before handing it over to the man to get a closer look.
“Where’d you get it?” Thankfully, he handled the necklace carefully, thumb running over each stone. He didn’t look up at Thoster, completely focused on the item instead. He assumed the man had money, or knew enough about fine items to not be so easily impressed by the craftsmanship of the necklace on its own.It needed to be something more than a trinket that was purchased to make a woman smile. It needed to have history, to tell a story that could be passed along while the man slipped the chain around the slender neck of a beautiful woman. As quickly as he needed a tale, one started to form. The words knitted themselves together neatly, causing a smile to twitch at his lips as he started to speak.
“Found it on my travels.” A simple start, but the details were where he knew the man would find the true value to the story. “A princess provided it to me as payment for saving her life. It’s the finest you’ll find.”
The man didn’t say a word, just continued to appraise the necklace. Usually, they asked him for a price by now, or what the stones were. Thoster watched him, hiding the nervousness that welled up inside him as each second passed. He felt like he needed to fill in the silence, like he’d lose the sale if he let it go on too long.
“The moonstones were blessed by a sorcerer before I left. He said they’d bring the wearer good fortune. Or perhaps he meant a large fortune. The princess certainly had that in spades.” Again, the man remained silent, but he did glance up at Thoster, the slightest sign of a smile passing across his features.
“And when do you plan on telling me the truth?” Thoster balked in protest, opening his mouth to deny that he would be anything but truthful, but the man held up a hand to silence him. “You’re right that the piece is quite fine, and worth nearly as much as you’d hope to get for it. But if you’ve travelled as far as outside of this city, I would fall over dead with shock. You’re no more an adventurer than I am a king.” The words weren’t said with malice. In fact, he laughed as he spoke. Thoster, on the other hand, bristled as his ego was bruised and beaten by the man’s very accurate description. He had been born and raised in the city of Merrowport, lived in the same house for all his twenty years, and for all his dreams of being something worth telling a story about, he hadn’t made it one step outside of the city walls.
“No harm in it.” The man continued, waving off Thoster’s glare. “But I would like to know where the necklace does come from. If you tell me the truth of it, I’ll pay you now and we can discuss a better story for you to tell over lunch.”
For a moment, Thoster hesitated, wondering just what angle this one was working to offer him to pay for the jewelry and to feed him. But he had no true plans for food later in the day. Breakfast would be but a distant memory before long, and he was meant to stay out for several hours past that.
“What’s your name, friend?” Thoster asked, side stepping the man’s offer for now.
“Calvin Roff.” He held out his free hand, which Thoster took and shook firmly, trying to reassert his still wounded pride was yet intact. “Cal will do for today’s exchange.” It was then that Thoster noticed there was a faint smell of salt that lingered in the air, which made him wonder if he worked on a boat docked at the harbor.
“Well, Cal- the necklace belonged to my mother. She passed on and my sister asked me to sell a bit of her things to try to feed our younger brother and sister for a few more nights. Name’s Thoster, by the way. Thoster Chatwyn.” It was far more honest than he had intended to be with anyone on his trip to this part of town, more honest than he was with anyone outside of his family, if he really thought about it. The truth wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, except that it meant he wasn’t able to bring money home consistently enough to avoid selling off the personal items of his deceased mother.
“Wasn’t so hard, was it?” He was obviously satisfied with the answer and looked no less interested in the necklace, as he glanced down at it in his hand. When he glanced back up, Cal was sporting another smug smile, but this time, Thoster was in on the joke. He managed a smile in return, which only caused Cal to laugh. “All that’s left is to discuss a fair price for the necklace. We can do that while we eat, I think.”
“Aye, you won’t hear a word of complaint from me.”
“Wonderful. I passed a place on my way down this street. The Sparrow’s Nest? Know of it?”
Thoster nodded, “Better cooks than most in this part of town. And there’s a pretty little thing who pours heavy if you know how to talk to her.” Not that midday was any time to be drinking, but if Cal intended to buy, then Thoster just might have to partake. The walk wasn’t far to get them to the tavern, and as they stood outside the doors, a memory slid back into place.
“You were here last night.” This was the same establishment that he had found himself in, drinking and listening to old stories about fantastic treasure in distant lands. Cal had been quiet, but was definitely there. Seeing him with the bar as the backdrop, the haze of last night’s events cleared up a bit
“I wondered if you’d remember. I was here with a few friends of mine. From what I recall, you were having a much better time than any of us.”
“What can I say? I don’t much like to do things halfway.” Thoster shrugged and opened the tavern door, leading them both inside. He was all the more curious as to what this meant for Calvin’s presence on the street today if he knew Thoster was at this very place just last night. “These friends of yours… You’re not from here, aye? You’re part of a crew that’s docked, aren’t you?” The interest in his voice was plain. There was a thirst in him for adventure, to see the world.
Choosing not to answer, Calvin surveyed the room and picked out a table for the two of them, not something tucked away in the corner, but right in the center, right where anyone could see. Thoster seemed a bit put off by the way the man ignored his question, but took his seat at the table, all the same. The tavern was well kept for the area it resided in, but even still, a heavy scent of mildew filled the air. He found that it faded as one drank deeply from their cup. It was part of the reason why he tried to drink on his way to the bar. The ale they served was watered down and far too overpriced for his liking, but a few sips of something stronger on his walk through town did wonders to mask the stench that clung to the walls here.
"What can I get for the pair of you?" The barmaid that approached was short enough to hint at halfling ancestors in generations past, with a round face framed by dark hair. She gave an extra bit of sway to her hips with each step as she approached, aware of what might earn a coin or two left behind and seemingly fine with offering a view for a few drunken patrons if it helped to line her pockets.
"A bit of bread and cheese, I think." Calvin said, scratching at his chin thoughtfully. "And two mugs of ale to start. But you’ll be sure to keep those cups full for us, I would wager." He slid her a piece of gold that was larger than her small palm. Her green eyes widened, holding it up for brief examination before she tucked it into a fold of her skirt. A quick nod and a muttered thanks was all she managed as she hurried off to fetch the food and drink.
Watching her leave, Thoster leaned over in his chair to keep sight of her as long as possible. He let out a low whistle, chuckling and shaking his head.
"You’ll be everyone’s favorite patron by nightfall if you keep that up." He tried to contain his excitement. This man was clearly wealthy. Thoster had never seen a coin like that in all his years. A single coin of that size would likely feed his family for a week if he stretched it right. Calvin simply shrugged, pulling out a second coin, the same as the one he had given to the girl.
"I’ve always found it interesting, the things we do for a scrap of gold." Calvin turned the piece over, twisting his wrist and letting the sunlight glint off of it as it filtered in through dirty windows.
"I’d hardly call that a scrap." Thoster commented, not fully intending to speak the words, but unable to deny them once they’re out of his mouth. "That’s more gold than some here could hope to see in their lifetime."
Cal tipped back his head and laughed, the sound rich and booming, filling the tavern and echoing off the shabby walls. Thoster blinked, head tilting slightly as he tried to decide if he should laugh as well. It seemed an insult, as if the poverty of those like him might be so humorous to cause such a sound.
"Oh, lad--" Calvin clapped a fond hand to Thoster’s shoulder and gave him a small jostle. "You remind me of someone I knew once. It’s alright to lust after it, you know. Gold is the mistress of more men and women alike than we could hope to count. There’s no shame in hoping she might share her bed with you." He winked and dropped his hand in one smooth motion, timed just so as the barmaid returned with their refreshments.
"My hope is to talk her out of yours in exchange for that necklace." He admitted as he reached for a chunk of bread, ripping it in half between his hands. The smile on his lips attempted to be light hearted, but he was already trying to sort out just how much he might manage to bring home to his siblings.
"Ah, yes. Best we not forget the reason for our meeting. Good lad." Calvin took hold of his mug and drank deeply, finishing at least half of the ale in the blink of an eye. "Tell me, just how much did you hope to get for the whole of it? All the baubles you brought with you today?"
"For every last gem? Thirty pieces of gold, give or take. Not the pieces you carry, mind. The royal standard gold piece." He could hardly imagine selling all of it in one day, though. To think it possible would be a fool’s dream, but he thought it wise to be honest with Cal for now, to give a number he considered fair.
The man considered Thoster for a moment, reaching for a piece of cheese, chewing it slowly as he looked over the necklace laid on the table between them. After several long moments of silence, Thoster cleared his throat and leaned forward.
"Now, if you don’t agree, we could-"
His sentence was cut off abruptly by the dull thud of a coin purse landing on the wooden table. The black cloth was cinched tight by a rope dyed to look like gold itself. It was large enough and full enough for Thoster to know on sight that the purse easily held twice the number he had offered.
"It’s yours." Calvin said, dusting the crumbs from his hands and finishing his ale. Thoster reached for the bag holding the rest of the jewelry, assuming it was part of this bargain. Calvin’s voice stopped him short. "No. Keep it for another day when you and yours are in need. I’ll only take this for now." He picked the necklace back up from the table, thumb running over the moonstones before it tucked it neatly into a pocket of his jacket.
"I don’t understand." Thoster said with a shake of his head. "The necklace isn’t worth half this. It isn’t worth half of half!"
"I’m not paying you for the necklace." The man said, fishing another few coins to place on the table to pay for their food. He moved to stand, Thoster mirroring the action.
"Then what are you paying me for?"
"I’ve got a job for you. Something that will keep you too busy to be selling your mother’s jewels all day and all night. I suspect that sum will keep those close to you fed for awhile yet. The last thing I need is a man in my employ worried if his family will have anything to eat for their next meal."
"A man in your..?"
"A simple task, really. We need a local man, someone who knows his way around. The cargo we’re unloading from my ship is too precious to have my men stumbling around, asking for directions." His lips quirked into a small smile before he continued. "All I ask is that you show them where they need to go and make sure they make it back before sunrise."
Thoster shifted on his feet, uncertainty in his eyes as he rolled the words over in his head. He had to be careful of what work he got himself involved in. The last thing he wanted was to bring trouble to his family’s doorstep.
"If all you need is an errand boy for one night, what do you care if I sell jewelry any other day?"
"Ah..." Calvin smiles, wide and wolffish. "Tonight is just the start. My ship will be coming and going from this port as we please for some time. Do well for me and I’ll have plenty more where that came from. So, what do you say?"