Saturday, 10 October 2009


Alice made her way around the edges of the crowd gathered in front of the Emperor's Cathedral of the Feast of Altheria. The bells were ringing, calling the faithful to evening prayers. It wasn't a Festival day, so there were only a few hundred people in the plaza, but it was still a good-sized crowd to work. Alice pulled her shawl further up over her shoulder-length brown hair, feeling cold drops of water from the drizzle breaking through the weave and dripping on her head. The long-handled barrow was awkward to manoeuvre, the iron-bound wooden wheels jarring on the cobblestones, and the axle needed greasing again. The intermittent squeal it made was really irritating. She wondered if she could get some good-quality machine grease this time, instead of tallow.

She was glad she'd chosen to wear a long coat over her long-sleeved, ankle-length shirt-waister. The fabric of both garments was thin, and the cold and damp were seeping through to her skin. The soles of her boots were thin too, and she could feel the uneven plaza through them.

She called her wares, putting on her thickest accent, her voice piercing and strident.

"Luvverly `ot tucker, cum `n get it `ere! Sausage in a bun, hot grox pies – look at that luvverly suet crust m'dear! Hot meat `n veg stew, `n the special today ... caramelised crispy river rat on a stick! All hot, all fresh cooked, best quality meat! Cum `n get it `ere, laydies `n gennelmen!"

She ladled soup from the tureen into a bread coffin, passing it over to a punter. The charcoal burners under the tureens sat on heavy ceramic tiles, preventing the wooden barrow from catching alight. Effective, but it made the brightly painted barrow heavy to push. The words "Drunken Ork" were painted in fancy script on the barrow's awning, and damp pennants depicting the Saint hung from the support posts. Everything dripped moisture as the persistent drizzle continued.

"Fresh made this mornin', these pies, sur. Only a quarter throne, stuffed full `a best quality meat, they are, sur. Yes ma'am, the soup is very hot! This batch `as bin goin' for a couple a weeks now – threw in some good rich grox marrow bones only last night, and there's fresh greens on the top there. Ah, I see you've got a load `a one cent coins there, sur. Saints' `oly Flesh, sur, I'd be grateful for the change. That's it, put it on the counter there, `n I'll swap you for some quarter `n half thrones for your troubles.

"Ketchup with that sur? Lookin' forward to the service are ye? Good crowd for a weekday night, innit? Saint's Blessin's on ye, madam! Keepin' a poor girl in `onest employ! Nah, I dunno wot that fuss is up the front there, dearie! Some sorta' nun, eh? Somebody fainted, `ave they? Ain't this drizzle depressin', then? `alf a throne, thanks – there ye go, give you the balance back in change, eh?

"Fresh buns `n spicy grox sausage – sausage in a bun, there, sur? Fried onions too? By the Blessed Lady, thanks be to ye, sur. Oh look sur, the crowds movin' agin now – don't wanna be left behind, do ye now?

"That's a luvverly `at ye be wearin', for sure, ma'am – two pies? Aye, one for the little `un, that'll keep `im quiet during mass – at least till they hand out the host, eh duck?"

Alice kept up a constant stream of patter as she pushed the barrow around the edge of the crowd, swapping small coins for larger, palming a good fifty thrones in the process. The weight in her pocket had increased, with a couple of watches, two tie pins, a tobacco case and other bits and pieces she had lifted off the more well-off parishioners. She wouldn't bilk her own people, but the others were fair game.
It was a bit of a walk back home, but she continued to sell more hot food as she went – the caramelised river rat was particularly popular in the poorer areas.

"Grain fed for the last week, mister, I be tellin' ya. Look at that – 500 grams if they're a pound! And a bargain at half a throne! Cut me own throat if I be tellin' a lie."

She looked up from this sale to see two of her least favourite local law enforcers standing further down the dirty street. The tall, fat, dark haired one was just a brute and a bully. But the other one scared her. Average height, blond, wiry, with a nasty disposition, he had a reputation for being rough with the girls – whether they worked the street or not. She pulled her shawl further over her head, checking that the two halves were securely fastened over her chest, and making sure no flesh was showing. No point in asking for trouble from these two.

She could hear them bickering from here. Huh, stupid men – they'd tried that F-Omega con again on unwary travellers. As she drew closer she could see the grime on their ugly grey uniforms, and the smell of stale sweat and urine assaulted her senses. Ugh. An Adeptus Arbites stamp, eh? That was interesting – who might be interested in paying for that piece of information, she wondered.

"Officers. Blessin's of Our Holy Lady on ye, this grey and damp evenin'. What will ye be havin' this night, then? Got some fine suet crusted grox pies – `course it's grox meat! How could you be thinkin' otherwise! n' some luvverly soup. Special tho is the rat on a stick – crispy caramel. You gennelmen would like crispy rat on a stick, eh luv? No, no charge for our finest." Ducking blondie's grasping paws and greasy lips, she gave them a rat on a stick each, and pushed the barrow past them as quickly as she could, trying not to shudder too visibly.

As she went past the front of the Inn, she noticed a man who looked like a drunken vagrant walking in. Huh, she thought – what's he up to? Going round to the back door of the Inn, she opened the kitchen door.

"Ma, I'm back. You know that Arbites officer's back again? You can smell `em from halfway down the street! Is Mr Sneed 'ere? I made a good hundred thrones tonight. And look at this lot – maybe another hundred's worth of bits n bobs. I'll need to go see Mr Tharpe tonight, see what jobs he has for me. Right, well, I'll bring the pots in, `n quench the burners before I get changed. Then I'll help Da out front in the bar. Back in a mo! There should be enough left on the barrow for supper."

Alice put the armful of wood and bucket of coal down, took off her wet boots and put them on the rack beside the range to dry. Grabbing a towel from the drying rack above the range, and replacing it with her damp shawl, she gave her Ma a quick peck on the cheek, before heading upstairs to their rooms above the inn.

She took off her damp blouse, gave it a sniff, decided it would stand another wear, and hung it up carefully to dry. She slipped another, lower cut blouse of finer calico over her head, not bothering with the buttons. Looking in the drawer at her collection of shawls, she decided on a lovely, finely woven rose pink one, decorated with the blood-red flowers that were said to be the favourite of the Blessed Saint. Placing it over her shoulders, she tucked the ends back under her arms, and adjusted blouse and shawl to reveal a modest amount of cleavage. The idea was to encourage the purchase of food and alcohol by the punters, without being immodest – that would attract the back of her Da's hand.

She used the towel to dry the hem of her skirt, squeezing the excess moisture out. It was easier to wash a towel than the skirt, especially if this drizzle continued. Checking her look in the cracked and discoloured mirror, she adjusted the pendant of Saint Altheria that hung low on her chest, and fingered the devotional scar at the base of her neck, in the notch where the collarbones met.

That had been one of the proudest moments in her life. She had barely flinched when the white-hot brand had touched her, marking her as an adult member of the congregation with the capital "A" of the Blessed Saint Altheria. The Confirmation ceremony had been completed a couple of weeks later with red tattooing over the newly healed scar tissue. Blood and Body of our Blessed Lady, Saint be Praised!
Slipping wooden pattens over her stockinged feet, she snuggled her toes into the well-worn shoes, and smiled. Life was good. Time for work. She almost skipped back down the stairs, delighting in the sound of wood on wood. Picking up a tray, order pad and pencil, a stack of clean ashtrays, a cleaning cloth and a small bucket of warm soapy water on her way through the kitchen, she paused as she opened the door to the front rooms of the inn.

The smell of damp fabric and leather, sweating men, smoke from the fire burning in the corner, and the pall of cigarette smoke hanging just below the ceiling assaulted her senses. Closing the door behind her, she slipped over to the bar, giving her Da a peck on the cheek.

"I'll clean the tables first, Da, then get the supper orders goin'."

Moving through the fairly crowded room, she wiped tables clean, swapped dirty ashtrays for clean ones, picked up empty glasses, and generally worked the clientele.
"'ere, Mr Jones, let me clean that table for ye – don' want to `ave wet elbows, now do ye, lovey? The missus would be most put out if she had to wash that jacket!
"I'll take that empty glass away for ye, shall I, sir? Like another, would ye? Be back shortly with that, duck."

"Mr Sneed, so good of ye to join us on this rare, soft night. Let me clean this table for ye. The usual for ye, is it? I've some luvverly `ot grox pies, with a thick suet crust, an' full o' gravy. An' there's `ot soup. I was just telling a customer earlier today, Ma's `ad it simmerin' on the back of the range for the last week – threw in some new marra' bones last night, serve that all up with some nice fresh greens, an' fresh `ot bread. Ma's just finished the evenin' bakin', don' ye know?" Lowering her voice, she continued. "'an I've got some verra nice pieces I picked up today for ye, sur, that I'll show you at your convenience." Nodding to him, with a smile on her lips and in her bright blue eyes, she said in a normal voice, "Aye sur, on your tab as usual, sur."

Moving on, she approached the table where the "drunken vagrant" was seated.
"Evenin' Officer Lorith. Saint's Blessin's on ye. Watchin' Mr Sneed agin' tonight, are ye? Special o' the night is Caramelised Crispy-Skinned Rat on a Stick, served with fresh greens and fried taties. An' I'll be fetchin' ye another beer, shall I? Only the best for the finest of the Adeptus Arbites, eh luv? `An ye'll be passin' on Saint's Blessin's to Intelligencer Amas from me Da, won't ye sur? All our contributions are up to date with the AA. I'll just be addin' that to yer tab."

Turning away, she thought sourly, . She continued through the large room, cleaning tables, making small talk, taking orders, keeping up the non-stop patter that was expected from her.

When the room was worked over to her satisfaction, she took the tray of dirty glasses and ashtrays back to the kitchen, giving Da a smile in passing.

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