Chapter 4. <The Scammer and the Scammed (1)>
In the establishment commonly known as Poppet’s Place, every single door squeaked. The ancient building was erected nearly half a century ago to house a rich man, but after that man’s mysterious death, the first floor was converted into a seamstress’s boutique. Perhaps his spirit cursed the building: No matter how much the doors were oiled and the hinges replaced, the doors continued to creak and screech at the lightest draft.
On the second floor of Poppet’s Place were the bedrooms. This was where the seamstress, her companion, her companion’s younger brother, and the brother’s playmate lived. These orphans of war lived as respectably as they could considering their circumstances, and they cared for each other like family.
But there was an unfamiliar presence on the second floor.
A boy child that wasn’t a boy or a child slumbered in one of the bedrooms. By her side, a boy child that was a boy and a child wiped at her forehead with a wet rag.
The bedroom door squeaked.
Lizen lifted his head to see his older sister, Tino, leaning against the doorway, arms crossed across her off-white apron. She frowned at the fake child on the bed.
“We can’t keep picking up strays,” said Tino. “Hilary was bad enough. Do you know how much little boys eat?”
Lizen twisted the wet rag over a wooden bowl and dabbed at Andy’s forehead. He was worried because the child was still feverish.
“Was I supposed to let him drown?” asked Lizen. “Like you said, he’s little.”
In Tino’s eyes, they looked about the same size. The only difference was that Lizen’s heart was much too big, and Tino was certain that one day, she would find it raw and bleeding because he offered it to the wrong person.
She changed tactics.
“It’ll be dangerous for us and him if he’s around. Od’s group is trying to poach our territory, and our clients have been talking about going over—”
“Tino,” Lizen interrupted. He placed the rag down. “I’ll vouch for him. I don’t think he has anywhere to go.”
His sister’s response was swift, and Lizen huffed.
“It’s dangerous, he doesn’t look like us, and I don’t trust him,” listed Tino.
“He’s a sick child,” said Lizen.
“And what is he like when he isn’t sick? You’ve known him for a day.”
Lizen nodded, acknowledging Tino’s point. He had only met Andy earlier today, and Andy did look different from them. His hands were uncalloused, his skin pale like he didn’t spend much time in the sun, and even though he was sick he still looked to be in a better physical condition than the rest of them combined. But Lizen remembered how antsy Andy had been when Lizen asked about his past. Nobody ran away from a comfortable life for fun. Regardless of his origins, Andy must have been as damaged as they were.
“Let him prove himself,” said Lizen. “Poppet could use some help in the shop, or he could find something else to do.”
Lizen’s eyes grew rounder as he imitated an injured puppy. A moment later, Tino had to look away.
“Fine! He has a week.” Tino scowled at herself for giving in. “And you have to convince Poppet, too, not just me. If he turns out useless or untrustworthy, I’ll punt him to the streets myself.”
They shook hands on the deal.
A gentle melody hung in the air. The song sounded a bit familiar, like a half-forgotten lullaby. There was a soft touch against her leg.
Andy snapped open her eyes and jerked up to see a small hand reaching inside her trouser pocket.
The hand slapped her.
“Sorry, sorry. I thought you’d be asleep longer.”
Andy turned her head to see a blond boy, about seven years old, wearing a long, green, and lumpy overcoat.
“You picked my pockets,” she said, somewhat dumbfounded.
The boy grinned. “I just thought it’d be uncomfortable for you to sleep with heavy pockets. Not that there was much. Here’s your knife back.”
He handed over the knife that Andy had pilfered from the wagoneer. It was a good knife, with a smooth wooden handle and a leather sheathe.
“Actually, I appropriated it from someone else,” admitted Andy. It was hard to feel angry when the boy was so upfront about it. “But you have my thanks.” She tucked the knife in her waistband. “By the way, where is this?”
The decor of the room was gaudy but bare. There were traces of gold scraped off the furniture and empty spots where large portraits or mirrors would have hung. What remained was many decades out of style and had yet to see a renaissance in high society.
It was still a step up from prison, though.
“This is Poppet’s Place,” said the boy. The emphasis he put on the words made Andy think that ‘place’ was a proper noun. “Lizen dragged you in last night.”
“Lizen!” exclaimed Andy, recalling the kind boy who had saved her. “Where is he? I should thank him—”
“He’s out working. He told me to take care of you while he’s gone.” The boy shrugged. “You do need an awful lot of caring, and I owe him.”
Andy furrowed her brows and looked at the boy again. She hazarded a guess. “…Are you Hilary?”
“Right-o. Good to see that Lizen didn’t forget about us with his new find.” Hilary clapped his hands with joy.
“Well, please give him my thanks. I’ll be on my way now that I’m awake and feeling better.” Andy made to stand up from the bed, but Hilary pushed her back down. It was a testament to her weakness that such a young child could push her down.
“You’re not going anywhere,” said Hilary.
Andy bristled. “Is that a threat?”
“No, but you’re definitely going to get yourself robbed and killed (when they find out you have no money) out there. At least lose the accent before you head out into the big, scary world.”
For the second time in five minutes, Andy was at a loss for words. Finally, she said, “The accent?”
“Yeah. You talk funny,” said Hilary. His words weren’t meant to be an insult but genuine advice.
Andy considered it. She had noticed that the way Lizen and Hilary talked was different from hers, but she wasn’t sure how to replicate it.
Noticing her struggle, Hilary suggested, “Stop dragging out your words. Stop using fancy words like ‘appropriated.’ If you stole something, just say you stole it.”
“I stole the knife.”
“Much better! Do you know any cuss words? We’ll have you talking like a street rat in no time!”
Andy was so drawn into the lesson on elocution that she didn’t notice the time passing. When her stomach growled in protest, Hilary dragged her into the kitchen like it was only natural.
It was nearly night, and far too late for Andy to leave Poppet’s Place as she had intended. Andy remembered belatedly what Lizen had said about Hilary: He was a massive scammer.
Andy utilized one of the vocabulary words Hilary had taught her.
Thank you for reading! Up next, the introductions of Poppet and Od.