The market was in full bloom, bursting with spoils of the late summer harvest, and the mood was nothing short of jubilant. All down the stalls, farmers had their best produce on display, calling out to passersby to come around, pause a little, have a taste before the sun set closed out the day. French and English and other tongues besides, it was a beautiful cacophony, and the perfect antidote to the world beyond its borders.
The beautiful young woman in the blue dress skipped through the crowd, her basket already heavy with cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes. Men tipped their hats to her purely on account of her smile. Women politely ignored her youthful exuberance. Her smile was addictive and contagious, and spread to everyone around.
“Hello, Monsieur Roy,” she said in French, pausing in front of a weathered wooden stall near the north end of the market. “Glorious day, isn’t it?”
Mr Roy, an older gentleman with a sizable moustache and a balding head, couldn’t help but laugh. “But Sophie, it’s almost over!”
She flashed him a grin. “Maybe for you. But for me…there’s so much left to do!”
He started piling green beans into her basket as she talked; this was their dynamic: Sophie was wistful, and Mr Roy, he was practical. She leaned against the stall, eyes to the sky, mind unspooling a tremendous romance faster than her mouth could speak it…
“Mr Courtenay gave me a flower this morning,” she said. “And not one of the ones by the side of the road, either. He waited for me down the way, and on my way to church, he stepped out to greet me, and he bowed—he bowed so wonderfully!—and presented me with the flower like a knight to his lady.”
Her eyes twinkled at the thought of it. “Would you like to see?”
Mr Roy laughed. “I suppose I’d better,” he said.
She took the rose from the loop at her belt, holding it out like a holy relic. It was yellow, like her hair, and perfectly cut. Not a thorn to be seen. Mr Courtenay had certainly made the effort…not that Sophie took much in the way of swaying when it came to affairs of the heart.
“Have you set the date?” teased Mr Roy.
She blushed. “He hasn’t asked me yet,” she said.
Mr Roy gave her a wink. “Yet.”
She beamed back. “Exactly.” She fished a coin from her pocket and set it on the stall. “Thank you again, Monsieur Roy! See you soon! Have a wonderful evening!”
He waved good-bye, laughing to himself. “You too, my dear,” he said. “Enjoy every second.”
Sophie kept the rose to her face as she exited the market, heading east toward York Street, waving to everyone she knew, and many she didn’t. The sun was setting, and she cast a long shadow down the dry and dusty road. She was entranced by it, seeing all the shapes and scenes she could make, laughing herself silly the further down she went.
She didn’t notice the man until she walked into him, bumping into him so hard she spilled some of her vegetables onto the ground. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m so sorry!”
The man helped her recover her lost goods, setting them in her basket for her. He was muscular and rough, wild hair slicked back as far as it would go.
“My apologies, mademoiselle,” he said in French. “I didn’t see you there. Are you alright?”
The last of her vegetables safely put away, Sophie’s smile returned, full-force. “I’m wonderful,” she said. “Simply wonderful.”
He smiled back. “So you are. Oh! Here, I suspect this is yours…” He fetched the rose off the ground, blew at it to clear away the dust. “It’s beautiful.”
She took it from him with an appreciative tip of her head. “It is,” she said.
“He’s a lucky man,” said the stranger, looking her up and down for a moment.
Sophie didn’t seem to notice. “We’re both lucky, I suppose.”
The man nodded, and stepped out of her way. “Well, good evening, then.”
“Good evening, sir!” she said, and skipped on past.
He watched her a moment, then carried on his way.
York Street was a mess of shops and houses, mashed together with little regard for order or decorum. The original plan for Lowertown had been marked in the dirt by Colonel By himself, but beyond the notion of “this is a street and that is a lot,” not much of his vision had come to fruition. Landowners let anyone build anything anywhere, so long as they paid the rent. Some homes had been built facing a thoroughfare, only to become boxed in over time, inaccessible except through winding alleys.
Sophie’s house was through such an alley. And as the sun went down, the long shadows becoming a murky glow, she turned down the lane that would bring her home.
“Hello, darlin’,” said an Irish voice from the darkness.
Sophie knew better than to pause. She walked a little faster, pretending she hadn’t heard.
“Where ya goin’?” called the voice, now safely behind her.
Sophie exhaled, clutching her basket tightly as—
A man was standing in front of her. Not large, not wide, but mean. She could see it in his eyes, smell it on him. He grinned at her like a wolf grins at its cornered prey.
“He asked you a question,” said the wolf, voice rough like the edge of a saw.
“I…I…” Sophie said, suddenly aware of the first man behind her, blocking her in. “Pardon, monsieur, I do not speak…”
“Here, let me help you with that,” said the wolf, pulling the basket off her arm. She was so frozen with fear, she just stood there, trembling, as he took it away, peered inside, and dropped it at his feet. Vegetables spilled everywhere.
“Please…” she whispered in English. “Please, I—”
The wolf reached out and put his hand on the side of her face, rough fingertips scraping her skin. “Awful late t’be out and about, ain’t it?” he asked. “For a pretty girl like you?”
She tried to take a step back, but bumped into the other man. He was taller, heavy-set, and smelled of beer, whisky and sawdust. She could feel his breath on the top of her head, hot and rancid.
“Please no,” she whispered. “Please, monsieur, no…”
“Don’t you worry, darlin’,” said the wolf. “This won’t hurt a bit.”
He took hold of her by the back of her head and jerked her forward, lips near his, grinning as she closed her eyes in terror as he leaned in and—
He felt a tap on the shoulder.
He turned, confused, and— crack! a stick hit him across the face so hard, he lost four teeth. He staggered to the side, into the house at the far side of the alley, and tumbled to the ground.
Sophie, face spattered by blood, gasped at the sight of a new stranger there, face hidden by a black mask, spinning a club around in his hand, and then locking his grip. He gave her a quick nod—run!—and she tried to go, but the second man was holding her arms, keeping her in place.
“Nuh uh,” he growled. “You want ‘er, you gotta take ‘er.”
The masked man cricked his neck.
The wolf was getting back to his feet, still dazed from the assault, but his fists were up and ready to swing. “You made a big mistake, my friend,” he slurred through broken teeth. “You know who we are? You know what we are?”
“Shiners,” said the bigger one. “Mr Aylen’s soldiers.”
The stranger regripped his club. “Good.”
The wolf saw the strike coming, and raised his arms to block it—but the force broke bones with a sickening crack. He doubled over, screaming in pain, and got an elbow to the back of the head, and crashed face-first into the dirt.
The stranger took a step back just as the big one reached for him, tossing Sophie to the side in the process. She tripped over the wolf, too scared to run, even though she had the chance.
The big man swatted the stranger with a backhanded blow, sending him crashing into the wall. For a moment it looked like he might not recover, and that would be that…but then he lashed out again, hitting the big man in the knee so hard, his leg snapped sideways, and he tumbled down.
The big man roared in pain and anger as another blow broke the arm that was keeping him upright, sending him onto the ground like his friend. He was panting, gasping for air, but his lungs filled with the cruel Bytown dust, and he started choking, gagging, eyes burning as he started to suffocate on his own mistakes.
The stranger rolled him onto his back, pressing the club into his throat as he stood over him, head tipped to the side like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to kill him this way, or another.
“Do it!” snarled the big man. “Just do it! You goddamn French bastard!”
The stranger laughed. A little, at first, but then more and more. “French?” he said, in a decidedly British accent. “The French don’t rule this town, and neither do you. This is our domain.”
And then he wound back, and clipped the man across the head, knocking him unconscious with a single blow.
Sophie, huddled against the wall, yelped as the stranger held out his hand to her. She looked up at him, tears streaming down her face, and fought to catch her breath. “Who…who…are you?”
He offered her his hand again, insisting she take it.
She looked to the wolf, in a pool of his own blood, and to the other man, broken and unconscious, and the reality of her situation clicked into place. She took the stranger’s hand, and was lifted to her feet, face to face with a man in a loose-fitting stitched-together mask.
He reached up to her face, and she flinched, closing her eyes…but he wiped his thumb down her cheek, cleaning off the worst of the blood spatter there. He nodded to her, like it might be reassuring, and then fetched her basket off the ground. The vegetables were worse for wear, but he put them all back in, one by one, as she stood there, in shock.
He came back up with her rose, its stem snapped in two. He set it atop the contents of her basket, and then with a satisfied sigh, stood aside for her to carry on her way.
She stared down the alley, terrified of what else might be waiting.
“I…I do not know if I can…” she said in English, voice cracking.
“You can,” he said, voice a whisper.
“But the Shiners…they will—”
He held up a hand, and she stopped. He gave a slight glance down to the club in his other hand. “If they try,” he said, “We’ll be ready.”
She shook her head, confused. “Who are you?”
He tipped his head to her and stepped back into the darkness without a word.
Sophie staggered past the blood on the ground, going home to her parents, who shrieked and cried at the state of her, vowing to never let her out of their sight again. And in truth, she never wanted to be out of their sight, either. Not in this town. Not any time soon.
Out on York Street, before the crowds started moving to and from the taverns that dotted the Lowertown map, the stranger in the black mask made his way east, hugging close to the buildings, pausing whenever he heard voices, listening to the cries in the air: good or bad? Giddy or terrorized? English or French?
At the edge of the easternmost reaches of Lowertown, he stopped, looking up at the sliver of a moon in the sky, and let out a long, mournful sigh.
Then he pulled off the mask, shoved it in his pocket, and limped his way on into the night.