Been dealing with other aspects of life for some time, but hopefully getting back into the swing of semi-regular updates.
“Do you know what it was after?”
“Nah,” Marko spat, wincing as Brill pulled a stitch closed on his shoulder. From the other side of the table, John Bergen, mayor of the Crossroads, stared half-lidded, annoyed and unimpressed.
“What would it have found in your office had you not stopped it?” he ventured.
“None of your business.” The mayor sighed and glanced between the others in the room, probing for reactions–Gene, arms crossed, leaning against the wall; Michel and Anita, the peacekeepers, standing at attention by the door; Brill, focused on his stitches, but not so focused that he forgot to turn his head, avoiding the mayor’s withering scrutiny.
“Brill, you have a key to the back room, don’t you?” Brill looked up, nearly dropping his needle. It was confirmation enough. “Would you kindly provide it?” Brill gulped as Marko interrupted, slamming the table with his uninjured arm:
“I said it’s none of your business!”
“He’s right, boy,” Gene grumbled. “You’re oversteppin’.” The old man didn’t mean it unkindly, but the mayor bristled anyway. It was endlessly frustrating to him that the elders refused to lead but still insisted on ramming their fingers through the spokes of his solutions.
“I do not intend to seize any property,” he clarified, staring Brill down. But since your patient has decided not to help in the effort, I would like Michel to take a look and help me estimate what portion of our town has just narrowly escaped ruin.
“John…” Gene cautioned. The mayor placed a hand flat on the table and turned to the blacksmith as slowly as his anger would permit.
“I’m not so young that I don’t remember what happened fourteen years ago, Gene.”
“The last time Marko’s stockpile was attacked,” he intoned. He turned on Marko. “Hazani scavengers found the cave up north where you were storing your acquisitions.”
“What of it?” Marko shot back. “It wasn’t even a setback in the long run.”
“Yes, but the short run was a year long. A year you didn’t have the funds to purchase inventory. A year your credibility was damaged by the exchanges your ‘non-setback’ made impossible. A year our three largest trading companies plotted routes bypassing the Crossroads, directly to Holme–do you recall, Marko?”
“I do,” Marko growled.
“Do you recall that during the food shortages we experienced that year, one in five of us died or left?” Marko practically snarled but did not reply. The rest of the room had fallen silent. “The key, Brill,” John said.
Before the apothecary could react, Marko stood, sending his chair skidding backward and tearing the needle from Brill’s fingers.
“Oh, fuck you, kid,” he rasped, moving to rip the thread from his shoulder just as Brill intervened, cutting it free with a hastily produced pair of scissors. “I took precautions after that, I gottem now, I’ll add some more fuckin’ precautions right fuckin’ now if it’ll help you sleep at night.” He paused, turning angrily back as he reached the door. “Long as you keep your damn nose to yourself. Gene, send your apprentice by me tomorrow. Door needs fixin’.” And with that, he stormed out.
A quiet moment passed before Brill, prompted by a pointed look from the mayor, begrudgingly rummaged the key from his pocket.
“You probably don’t have much time to use this,” they said, placing it on the table. “He’ll be booby-trapping the place as soon as he gets back, no doubt.”
“I can head over now, sir,” Michel offered. John shook his head.
“No need. Marko answered the question well enough. Tonight was indeed a closer call than we can afford.” He reached over and picked up the key, noting its ornate design and filigree handle. “This isn’t your work, right Gene?” The old man leaned over the table, squinting.
“No,” he confirmed. “It ain’t.”
“An artifact, then,” John said. “He won’t be able to change the locks very easily if that’s the case. I’ve no doubt we’ll find a use for it soon.”
“Whaddya mean, ‘we’, John?” Gene asked. “I don’t like this one bit. It’s bad precedent.”
“Marko isn’t like the rest of us anymore, Gene. He’s too important. You and Brill, you’re the backbone of this town, and I will always be grateful for what you’ve done for us. But dead things have backbones too. Marko’s trade is our lifeblood, and we can’t pin our livelihood on the dubious solace of his paranoia.”
Gene considered the argument for a moment before gritting his teeth and flicking the table in frustration.
“Do you disagree,” John asked. Gene huffed:
“No. I agree. Still don’t like it.” The mayor turned.
“Brill?” The apothecary sighed.
“I sympathize with your position, John,” they said. “I understand what you are trying to protect, and I’ve given you that key to use as you see fit. But I would have you understand that when we are finished talking here, I will be visiting Marko to advise him of what transpired and how he might protect his interests in spite of it. I am his friend, or the closest he has to it. I think that has its own importance in your web of incentives.”
The mayor grit his teeth but said nothing, regarding Brill silently until the apothecary, ascertaining that their point had been made, turned timidly to leave.
“Brill,” John muttered, grasping at the last thread he could think of. “Do you know where you stand in the end?”
“With the Crossroads, of course,” they replied, before making their exit. The mayor thought about it for a moment, nodding to himself as the others waited for a reaction. Gene pushed away from the table, snapping him back to reality.
“Gene, before you go. The boy. What was his role in all of this?”
“Ain’t sure, but I don’t like it either,” the old man grunted. “Barely coherent, sicker’n anyone I’ve seen since the war, but he shambles into the square and hits the thing with some kinda spell. Stunned it just long enough for Marko to pin it down.”
“Do we know where he came from?”
“Nah. Showed up with a caravan two weeks back. Think he goes by ‘Devlin’, but that’s all I’ve got.”
“I’ll look into it. Goodnight, Gene.”