(SHORT STORY) 🌘The Ringing Harbinger
Salutes all around. 🖖
Another one. 😈 I should really come up with a name for this world.
I promise this one is nowhere near as dark as the last one. 😅 It's still not happy-go-lucky, I don't do that ya see, nyah. 🔫
The bell rang and another satisfied customer left.
Brast stood behind his counter, proud hands on wide hips. He was grinning like a fool on too much Swirl and he knew it. The last order just sold out. The customers were satisfied. And today he would order his next shipment.
Life was good.
The bell rang to admit a portly man in a fancy suit. He carried himself with a noble’s demeanor but looked comfortable all the same. The store did not threaten to dirty his clothes; the dust did not bristle his nose. He seemed as relaxed as if he were home.
“My good fellow.” He inclined his head ever so slightly.
“Welcome to the Mortar and Pestle!” Brast exclaimed magnanimous, impressive. “I am honored to have your patronage, my lord.”
“None of that, thank you.” He swiped at the air as if the honorifics was a pestering fly. “Sermon. Just Sermon.” He slowly turned, admiring the almost empty shelves. “I once owned an establishment just like this one, you see. I remember despising having to grovel, like some spineless boot-licker.” He stared at Brast pointedly. “I will not have it now that the cork is replaced, mm?”
Brast gave Sermon a sincere bow. “No m’lording. Loud and clear. How can I assist you? I’m afraid we just ran out of our last -”
The gentleman stopped him with an upraised hand. “You’ve got only a couple shabby alembics left. Mm?” He said with a smile, his eyes twinkling. “Oh, and that box of old retorts you’ve been trying to sell all year.”
Brats’s smile fell with his spirits. The good times had to end eventually. He exhaled the last of his joyous energy and clasped both hands. “I pay my taxes, my lord. I’ve crossed no one. Please. I don’t want any trouble.”
Sermon, to his credit, puffed up like a peacock. “My good fellow. Whatever for -“
“I’m sorry, my lord.” The words poured out of him. “But my brother’s home burned down last spring because he could not meet… certain demands.” Brast gave a stiff bow. “I’ve done everything asked of me. Straight and by the book. Please, my lord, I am not interested in whatever you are offering.”
The lord absorbed the information with an air of indifference that made Brast’s heart sink. Then, he took a step back, put both hands in the air, his expression filled with hurt. “I assure you. By the light of our King. I mean you no harm.”
Brast relaxed only slightly. A man swearing by the Oath couldn’t cause him direct harm. But he had heard of nobles who used it as a shield to mask their intent. A taboo and openly frowned upon – but not against any law or doctrine.
“How can I be of service?” Brast’s tone rang hollow. “My lord?”
“Sermon,” he placated with a hand to his chest.
The gentleman took out a piece of parchment. A nicely decorated piece of parchment - wrapped with silken string. He placed it on the counter, then retrieved his hands as if it was coated with deadly poison. “Proof of my honest intentions. As well as a little something for your loyal and lawful service to the crown.
“All I ask is that you consider the name in that parchment. Buy your next shipment from them, and you will do the crown a great service. One that our majesty is sure to never forget.”
Brast did not move.
Sermon, if that was even his name, sighed dramatically as he revealed a jingling brown bag. He placed it on top, smiling at Brast like a viper. “Take it from me, I was once where you are now. It’s always smart – always – to form new relationships. Sure, some… bridges might be burned. But, bigger! You will build bigger ones in their place.”
“Thank you… Sermon.” Brast made no move towards his countertop. “Can… can I consider my options?”
Sermon made a gesture as if he was thinking the same thing. “Of course. But do not dally. Today is the last day for shipments for this quarter.” He smiled. “I’m sure you already knew that, however.”
When Brast said nothing the nobleman took his leave. Courteous to the end, the ringing sent him off as it did everyone else.
Brast stood without moving for a long time. Pondering his options in fruitless effort. He knew that there was no choice to be made. If he wanted to still have a business, he had to bend the knee and conform.
The bell sang and Brast quickly took the bag and parchment. He tried to put on his shopkeeper’s face but failed.
His next customer was a skinny man in unobtrusive clothing. He moved with care, his eyes taking stock of everything. His hands were in his pockets however, and his gait was casual. Brast couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew this man was tense. Like a spring ready to launch.
“Shopkeep.” He said in a ragged voice, leaning against the counter. “I hear you sell alchemical equipment here.”
Years as a salesman had taught Brast how to read people. Usually, he knew when someone was desperate or just haggling because of greed. His last customer wore a compelling mask. But Brast could still feel the brashness underneath.
He felt no malice from his current patron, but that didn’t settle his churning stomach. For this man was an enigma and hid his emotions like a dog hides his bone: diligent and with little care.
Brast managed a subdued. “Welcome to the Mortar and Pestle.” Deep inhale. “I am honored to have your patronage.”
“Aha. King’s got you by the balls, does her?” The man said, nonchalant. “Relax, man. I mean you no harm.”
Brast couldn’t help but chuckle. “That was what my last patron said.” He wiped the already clean countertop. “Seeing as how you know about my predicament; I suspect you are here to save me from the gauntleted fist of our Savior?”
“That I am.” He casually proffered his hand. “Minik. Pleasure.”
Hesitant, Brast took it. “Brast.”
“Before I brandish the shiv, I wanted to ask if you had any molded vials? I got a new apprentice, and he needs some help.”
Brast welcomed the request. He went to the back and returned with three vials. “My last three. Molded by the Sept themselves.”
Minik inspected the vials approvingly. “These will do.” He pulled a coin from thin air. “Keep the change, Brast. Van will definitely be happy with these.”
Brast took the coin, bit it, nodded. His stomach still churned though. “And… my predicament?”
“Ah.” Minik extracted a torn piece of parchment. “Not much to be done there, I'm afraid.” Brast took it from his outstretched hand. “Eventually, Brast. We must all make a choice.”
The paper was a shipment manifesto. Brast suspected the supplier was not the same as Sermon’s.
“Were you once a shopkeeper as well?”
“No.” Minik said curtly. “But I’ve seen my share. And it always comes down to this.”
“How can the King allow this?” Brast asked desperately. He wanted to weep.
“I suspect he thinks it’s good to have some competition.” He shrugged. “I’ve been asking the same question for years now. I don’t know how he allows it, but you have the power to choose your supplier.”
“And what a choice it is…” Brast said in his most disgusted, derogatory voice.
The man shrugged again and clapped Brast on the shoulder. “No hard feelings. You do good work. I’m sorry it had to come to this.”
And that was it. The next moment he was gone. Sent away by the bell - like so many others.
Brast held a parchment in each hand. Dumbstruck. He sat thinking for a long while. Then for a while still. The bell didn’t ring for the rest of the day.
Brast suspected it never would.
The King desires competition. He mused. I wonder what he does to the losers.
Brast had no delusions about his position. He understood he wasn’t even a player.
If you've made it this far thanks for reading! 😗 I'd appreciate any and all feedback - we're all trying to become better writers here. 💯
Cover image sourced from here.
Have a good week folks. 😙