Chapter 3: The Key to a Drama-Free Life
A year later
Either the Kensford City planners had no imagination, or their residents didn’t. This street market was just the same as all the others Jess had ever passed through, with vendors crowding into the square trying to outshout whoever owned the cart or stall next to them. The people had clearly heard it all before, which meant they were more focused on the gossip their neighbors were sharing than they were hearing about a ridiculously overpriced scarf that was “handmade by the elves, as I live and breathe.”
Jess skimmed her fingers along the mound of apples piled high at the produce stall, ear cocked to take in every mutter of the crowd behind her. She’d been sent an official request for her services, this time, brief and polite and nearly vibrating with an urgency that was never actually stated, but there was no way she was going to speak to the mayor armed with so little.
If the rumor mill was any indication, there was a lot the mayor hadn’t said.
“I’ve had to buy bread three times this week! The rats keep eating it!”
“I swear there was no sign of the little beasts even a week ago, but now they’re everywhere. It’s like an invasion.”
“They’ve practically moved into my daughter’s bedroom! We’ve tried putting poison out, but the nasty things won’t go anywhere near it.”
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about this. Nothing at all.”
Next to her, Thomas made an interested sound that Jess was sure had nothing at all to do with the conversations going on around them. He was intent on his mirror, skimming through various news streams like he was hunting something down, and when he got like this not even an explosion was enough to distract him.
Jess smiled a little at the memory. Only Thomas would list the likely ingredients of a bomb as they were running away from it.
On her other side, the owner of the stall was winding down his debate with a customer over the price of plums – when the other woman left, Jess knew she would be the next target for the sales pitch. Pocketing the apple closest to her fingers, she reached behind her and hooked her fingers on the hem of Thomas’s shirt. Tugging him over to the next stall – cheese, and the fancy kind by the smell of it – she deposited him safely out of the path of foot traffic and continued to feign an interest in shopping while she listened.
By the time three more people had commented on how “sudden” the infestation was, Jess wondered if there really was magic involved. It didn’t sound like something a sorcerer or sorceress would try – it wasn’t flashy enough, and they likely would have delivered a threat of some kind by now – but it could be just the right sort of revenge for a witch. Particularly one who was mad at the city council for some reason, and might be perfectly happy to pass that grudge onto the piper who just happened to wander into town. Even if she and Thomas didn’t end up a target, the witch could just send a new batch of rats right back into town after they’d left. And Jess, more than likely, would be blamed for it.
Jess sighed. She hated it when things got complicated.
Feeling the stall owner’s attention shift their way, she snagged Thomas’s shirt again and led them both over to a quiet corner. He let himself be guided, waiting until they were out of the way of any other potentially open ears before looking up from his mirror. “Ask for double your fee,” he said quietly, reporting on the research he’d just been doing. He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Elections are coming up, and if the current mayor doesn’t take care of the rat problem there’s no chance of him getting to stay in office.”
She leaned against the alley wall next to him, watching the crowd move past the entry into the small alleyway. The rhythm of this was already a familiar thing between them, as easy as she remembered it being between the performers in her foster mother’s theater troupe. Only they’d all worked together for years, the history between them all older than Jess herself, and she and Thomas had barely been doing this for a year. It was worrying, when she let herself think about it.
Mostly, she didn’t let herself.
“So that’s a point on the plus side,” she said instead, letting herself get lost in the rhythm. “On the minus side, there’s a chance someone ticked off a witch or a sorceress. We don’t want to get in the middle of that.”
Thomas’s brow furrowed, and he immediately bent back down to his mirror. His fingers flew over the mirror’s surface, various lists and maps flashing by in the smooth glass, and after a moment he shook his head. “There’s been no sign of any kind of trouble like that, and you know how the magic community likes to keep tabs on each other. Besides, the nearest sorcerer or sorceress is 200 miles away, and the nearest witch....” He let the words trail off as he double-checked something. “...left a year ago to take care of her sister after a house fell on her. She’s changed her address on the mailing list and everything.”
“Did you finally let them sign you up?” He’d let himself slip the week before and not-quite-complained about the pressure he was getting from some of the witches on the message boards he posted on regularly. He’d protested, saying he wasn’t even a witch, but apparently the actual witches hadn’t been bothered by that little detail.