The Bad and the Ugly

I decided to start posting the chapters from this book thing as I finished them for a variety of reasons.  One, it would let people I know what I was up to, which is something I’m not always good at doing.  Two, it was the only internet-permanent record of this stuff that I can count on…I like to think that the finished project has the potential to be good enough to find a home on paper someday, but too much of that happening is dependent on luck, so I’m stapling the work up here as I go.  Third, I thought it’d be interesting–for me, maybe for others–to be able to look back after it’s all done and see just how much the whole thing changed between first and final drafts, which is the kind of thing that writers and fans of writing love to obsess over.

And now, I pay the price.  Because there’s something else that posting these chapters right when they’re done will result in:  sometimes, the first draft sucks.  I generally write pretty clean first drafts, but sometimes…and this one in particular…is bloody awful.  It covers the plot points, sets up the emotional state I want Charlotte to be in, introduces the last member of her unusual triumvirate…but good god, it’s going to take more than a little work to get this one ready for prime time.

And yet, because of how I’m doing this, here it is.  In the spirit of ER surgeons, I’m tying off the vein and sacrificing the limb to save the patient.  I’ve been sitting on Chapter 6 for a freaking month now, and I need to get some momentum back and move on.

There is a tremendous upside to this, though:  I’ll be posting Chapter 7 tomorrow.  It’s been done for almost two months, just waiting patiently for me to catch up with everything that needs to come before it.  And so y’all will have an Easter treat:  motorcycles, swords and guns.  And is there anything closer to the true spirit of Easter than that?

Chapter 6

Charlotte was just a moment away from making her move when the panic took over. Her hand, outstretched, already shaking–her entire body had been shaking for some time now–froze, just inches from its target. The tiny, tenuous grip she’d managed to hold on to slipped and let go, and for the next few beats of her overtuned heart she was unaware of the spectacle she was causing, completely unaware of anything beyond the panic.

Her chest folded in on itself, lungs too tight, too small to catch a proper breath. She felt a heat burning from inside, unable to escape or release, and at the same time felt her hands grow cold and numb, the sweat on her brow sending a clear shiver through her spine, growing in strength as it traveled the length of her body, until the mild shaking (at least, mild in comparison) became an avalanche, a near seizure that threatened to bring her crashing to the ground.

She found just enough control over her body to turn the shaking into action, letting it find her legs, propelling them in whatever direction they found, trusting that some inherent sense of self-preservation would guide her to relative safety, but only because there was no other option. It was taking every remaining scrap of awareness to focus the panic energy into a seeming purpose.

Whether her self-preservation was so deeply embedded that it could be effective, even in the worst of all possible moments, or because she was just very, very lucky–and in the end, there wasn’t much difference between the two, she’d trusted everything she was to luck too many times before to consider it anything but a friend–when the tide of panic receded and she found enough internal shore to breath, and take in her situation, she found that her flight had brought her to a safe place, at least for the moment. There were still gray spots in her visions, slowly spinning between her immediate surroundings, but finally they were the exception, not the rule, and proved only a distraction from what she was seeing, not the sum total of it. It was still hard to breath, but even though her limbs still felt separate from her, animated with a force she couldn’t consciously claim as her own, she could finally feel her chest expand with each inhale, the air finding at least a brief, temporary home within her breast. And, miracle of miracles, she was still standing.

Even more amazing: as a relative calm returned to her, and she was able to take in more and more of the world around her, it became evident that her sudden flight hadn’t drawn nearly as much attention as it could have. As she scanned the crowd, she found a small handful of people looking in her direction, but while half a dozen people noticing her would have normally been a disaster–in fact, as she’d planned the day’s take the night before, in a state of calculating calm that was so far removed from her current state that it might as well have happened to someone else entirely, the idea of even one person noting her presence for more than a moment, maybe two, would have rendered the entire venture a complete failure–at the moment, she considered it a minor miracle that every single person at the faire–and there had to be two, maybe three hundred people crammed into this small field just outside the town–wasn’t staring at her right now, pointing and whispering under their breath to each other.

And, even as she was watching, that small handful of people who had registered her actions turned away, focusing on something else, something new, and just a few moments later, she was as anonymous as she’d hoped to be when setting out this morning.

Almost anonymous, she corrected herself, feeling someone walking up behind her, their intent and awareness of her evident in the cringing reaction of every exposed inch of her.

“You alright, hon?”

She turned, and saw a woman approaching her. The first thing she noticed was the concern on the woman’s face, muted but real, and she wondered just how shaken she must look. The second thing she noticed was the half-formed laugh behind the concern; however kindly she was viewing Charlotte, she also clearly wasn’t taking it all that seriously. The third thing she noticed–and this ultimately was the key, opening the door to a whole cascade of realizations, and ultimately a confrontation that would permanently change her life, and in the fullness of time the lives of just about every living soul in two different nations–was that the woman was basically naked.

She wore a long strip of cloth, passing behind her neck, crossing over her breasts, then wrapped around to be tied at her back; it was little more than a decoration, sheer enough that the round, heavy shape of her breasts were clearly visible, as were the dark stretched ovals of her nipples, pressing firmly against the fabric. Her skirt was a wider piece of the same material, knotted very low on her left hip, hiding nothing of the dark, ripe cleft where her legs met. Her hair was tied in random, half-unraveled twists, purely to keep the length of it out of her face and from hanging low enough to obscure any of what she was so clearly advertising, and she wore bold, somewhat-smudged makeup around her eyes and along her cheekbones.

And as Charlotte was still regaining control of herself and an awareness of her surroundings, she realized where her blind flight had taken her.

She and the woman were standing next to a large tent, one at the far edge of the field where the faire was being held, butted up against the tree-line. The entrance was just a few feet away from where they were standing–the woman had come from that direction, likely part of the group of woman still standing by the open flap, all in similar states of prominent undress. Those still by the entrance were focused on the crowd before them, specifically the men in the crowd, and were posing in a way that suggested anything and everything was possible, all of it available here, whistling and calling out offers to those passing nearest to them that were blunt enough to make Charlotte blush, even in her still-disoriented state.

She’d noted this tent when she’d first arrived at the faire, nearly an hour ago, and had marked it in her mind, determined to avoid it, both from a general sense of discomfort at the blatant, obvious sexuality on display, and also out of an odd sense of professional courtesy: the women working here, like her, were set on divorcing as much wealth from the male portion of the crowd at the faire as they could, however different their methods might be.

And if of course made sense, given how bad her luck had been today, that in her worst moment she’d end up here, the one place she’d been determined to avoid.

“Hon? …You looking for work?” And now the mocking laughter was pushing its way to the front, the woman’s concern forgotten as it became clear that Charlotte was, all things considered, going to be okay.

“No, I…the crowd was…I just need to breath.”

Charlotte began cursing between deep, stuttering breaths. She cursed the crowd, small by the standards of the cities she’d grown up in, but larger by far than she’d been around for years, and the way that it had suddenly closed in around her like a vice.

She cursed the first mark she’d made a move on, and his sudden, random decision to turn left instead of stopping where she thought he would, which would have worked out fine, or even turning right, which would have spoiled her plans but wouldn’t have nearly trapped the tips of her fingers in the opening of the purse hanging from his belt, which is where she’d found herself when he did, against all logic and planning, turn to his left. She’d managed to slip free of that almost-disaster, keeping her composure in the moment and continuing along the path she’d been walking, covering the extraction of her thieving hand with a slight bump and a muttered apology designed to be forgotten just a moment later–the worst thing you could do when working a crowd was to act like you were afraid of being caught, changing direction or speed to obviously, especially at the exact moment when something was going wrong and your mark was the most likely to look around for someone trying to quickly get away–but the sudden rushing of her heart in the moments immediately after had been the seed that the press of the crowd had crystallized around.

She cursed the damnable blue dress she’d decided to wear today, thinking somehow that a young girl would be less noticed in a crowd like this, and the long braid hanging loose down her back instead of wrapped around her head where it usually was, where it belonged. It had made sense this morning to hide herself by going opening as a nice, non-threatening girl, but she hadn’t counted on how much she’d grown–in a variety of uncomfortably obvious ways–since she’d last used the dress as a disguise. It was too short now, showing off more of her legs than she’d imagined it would, rising well over her knees, and the bosom was tight enough that she’d had a bit of trouble breathing freely even before the panic had begun to rise…though, she did comfort herself slightly with the thought that she still looked downright modest compared–flashing thighs and bulging cleavage included–compared to the women she’d ended up standing next to.

And all of that, really–the dress, the missed mark, even the crowd–might have been tolerable had it not been for the braid hanging down her back, constantly flickering in and out of her peripheral vision, bouncing against her back with seemingly every movement, forcing her to spend too much of herself to fight against the instinctual flinches that came with each slight, unfamiliar bump and tap. She resolved to turn her occasional musings into definite action as soon as she got back to her cave, even if it meant taking a dull knife to her hair and leaving it ragged and uneven, as long as it was short and no longer a bother.

More than anything, though, she cursed herself. She’d planned for today so carefully, so confidently, a perfect storm of so many people all in one place, purses bulging, but with none of the caution and preservation instincts that came from living in a city, where a large crowd and money to spend was the rule instead of the exception, and being wary of people like her was second-nature. She’d planned to cut a silent swath through these simple townsfolk and farmers, a glorious conclusion to her season-long efforts to set herself up for the winter…she could almost laugh now at what she’d thought would be most serious concern when she’d set out this morning: how to carry off all of the loot she’d take without drawing attention to herself, not in the taking, but in how much she’d physically have to carry out of here.

In all her planning, she hadn’t considered how different her chosen disguise–one she’d never actually used before–would make everything, nor how being around this many people after spending the last few years completely alone, or nearly so, would affect her. She’d been arrogant, concerned about all the wrong things, and she was paying for it now: empty-handed, out of breath, the shaking just barely subsiding, and everyone she’d hoped to blend in with having given her a much closer look than was good for her and what she’d hoped to do. However the day ended–and she was thinking that it should end just about now, as soon as she trusted her body enough to get her clear of the faire and back to her cave, where she could regroup and figure out what she was going to do next–she’d brought it on herself, and had no one else to blame.

“You know, hon,” the woman behind her said, “if you’re looking for work, Victor should be back in a bit. You’re a little young, but some of them like it like that.”

Every bit of control that Charlotte had managed to regain disappeared in an instant. Her chest tightened up again, her breaths coming quick and shallow. Her hands started shaking again, the ripples moving quickly to the rest of her body. She crouched slightly, her flight reflex fighting for control, and the tiny portion of her mind where rational thought still had a grip fought to process what she’d just heard.

There are many, many people in the world named Victor, she thought. And the last time she’d seen him, just before she’d cleaned out his chests and set out on her own, he and his crew had been working in one of the cities far to the south. There was absolutely no reason to think that the Victor this woman was referring to was the same one she’d betrayed four years ago.

But that Victor had often talked about getting into more legitimate lines of work to supplement the normal ventures he sent his crew out on. Like these travelling brothels, which were cheap to set up and run and insanely profitable once they were fully operational. Even over the last few years, while most of the nation was suffering through the recurring droughts and the accompanying poverty, brothels–especially those that could follow the action, paying one-time-only fees at every place they stopped rather than regular protection money like you had to when based permanently in a city–were the next best thing to guaranteed money. They had focused on the miners, who were never short on spendable crowns and a desire for company, and the road crews the crown had employed to build the highways crossing the nation, keeping as many people as possible employed–and thus fed–as it could.

And Victor wasn’t the type to have missed out on an opportunity like that, especially not when his eye had already been turning in that direction. But surely there were dozens of these set-ups working all up and down the country right now, and the odds that this particular one would be operated by the same crew boss that had sworn a slow and painful death for her if he ever came across her again were too small to take seriously.

And that was as far as her rational thinking got before it lost it’s hold and slipped completely from her mind, the panic fully returning and claiming her entire self. It was scary how intense her response was to that name, even considering that she hadn’t been in the best condition right before, but there was no arguing with the reactions quickly taking full control of her.

She looked at the woman, sure that her terror was obvious on her face but unable to care, and began staggering away from the tent, trying to impose some sense of intentional movement over her body which was only thinking to get her as far away from there as possible, as fast as she could go.

She plunged back into the crowd, hearing laughter from the woman behind her and not knowing if it was real or just something her panicked mind was filling in to try to excuse her flight. A dozen different thoughts fought for her attention, none of them particularly sensible, all of them broken up into a word here, an image there, serving only to confuse her more, which fed the panic.

As she fought against her base-level instinct to shove the people in front of her out of her way, trying with all her might to keep upright and moving at a pace with the crowd, drawing minimal attention to herself, her eyes settled upon something, and all of her panic and instincts zeroed in on it, convincing her that this one thing–and this one thing only–was her ticket out of here.

She moved towards the object of her temporary obsession, and tried to form her face into a smile.

“Excuse me? Would I…your hat, could…I would like…”

The words fell out of her mouth like a lazy accident, only tangentially related to the thoughts in her mind. The woman was old, deep lines carved onto her face, shoulders slumped and making her appear even shorter than she probably was. But she was wearing a hat, a large one with a wide brim. Some distant echo of rational thought in Charlotte’s mind was convinced that, if she could get ahold of that hat and wear it herself, it would hide her from Victor…and ultimately, from every bad thing that had happened to her today. It was a shield, a magic talisman that could protect her, and she cursed the words that she couldn’t find to say that were keeping her from safety.

“Are you okay dear?”

“I can pay you…buy it for you…from you…”

Charlotte cast about, her instincts briefly–thankfully–taking over. She saw a man walking by, a small purse swinging gently at his side, and within the blink of an eye her hand reached out, untied the purse, and palmed it close to her side, her all-of-a-sudden mark completely oblivious to her actions.

The old woman was not so oblivious.

“Here,” Charlotte said, reaching out to hand the freshly-acquired purse to the woman, “can I buy it? Your hat?”

The woman stared at her, making no move to take the purse. But neither did she appear ready to call Charlotte out for her impulsive crime. Finally, she grabbed Charlotte’s arm–friendly, but firmly–and pulled her close.

“I don’t know where you learned to do that,” the old woman said, “but I know that’s not the first time you’ve done that. You’re too good.

“My name’s Lois. Will you let me help you?”

Charlotte didn’t reply, didn’t respond in any real way…but as Lois led her away, out of the crowd and away from the faire, back towards the town, she didn’t resist, grateful for any current that could take over and guide her anywhere but where she was.


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