They say a man is awake before dawn for three reasons: he’s a farmer, he’s a thief, or he’s shouldering a heavy burden. Al wasn’t a farmer. Nor was he a thief, though that would change in the coming weeks. He had laid in bed awake, counting the minutes by, because he had set his workplace on fire.
There were plenty of ways things could have happened, but essentially there were only two outcomes: he burned the place down a little or he had burned it down a lot. There was no question that he had done it; he had seen the oil from the lamp catch fire, igniting the puddle on the floor. What he was unsure about was whether it had caught fire to any of the wooden boxes nearby and they had been awfully close.
Either way, he couldn’t do anything about it. He should go back to sleep and not concern himself with it until he got to work. A wonderful thought, but in practice it wasn’t something he’d ever been able to do. Big exams, his graduation from Amandorlam, the wizarding college, his wedding, the appointment for the meeting to start his business with Jinahl and Stohr, all those had been preceded with sleep that could be categorized more as a nap than slumber.
Thus, again, Al had wasted half the night worrying over his future. This time, his fears didn’t involve something that could be solved by extra credit or were excited fears about the future. This promised to yank away the career he had spent so long cultivating. He’d never admit to being well off, but he could buy a few books to read each month or go out to drink with his friend Aggie as well as pay most of the bills for his household. Without his career, his wife, daughter, and he would have to sell their house, scrape for every copper, maybe even beg on the street in order to survive.
Al sighed. So as not to wake his wife and daughter, he hopped over Marnie’s trundle bed and tiptoed to the living room. He slumped onto the sofa and stared at the ceiling. His thoughts swung wildly between other jobs he could do, to being arrested, to moving his family to another city. Occasionally he had some pretty insane thoughts, like the viscount of the city thanking him for burning down Milxner’s, but reality always wrested him from his fantasies.
He pulled a few books from his library and lit a candle. Books were his one splurge and he had so many that he had run out of space years ago. Al kept them in piles instead, arranged by their subject. He picked up a dry, dull text about historic empires that had ceased to exist thousands of years ago. It was odd how they had bored him to sleep in school, but couldn’t do that in that moment. Giving up, he moved on to an Arvonnese alley novel. It was a guilty pleasure Al had picked up years ago when he had stumbled across his obsession for everything about Arvonne. The tragedy of the revolution that had happened some sixteen years prior in that country had created a longing in its people to return things back to the way they had been. Al had empathized with them after reading his first novel and was hooked on following the adventures of the brave heroes that saved the country from its tyranny and oppression.
It worked for some time, but he was reminded several times that he should have been more like Caudin Alscaine and less like the coward who had backed out of the room and fled. Why hadn’t he just yelled for help? Or found a pail of water? Or even bravely (maybe stupidly) stomped the flames out with his foot? Caudin would have done one of those things.
The morning sky grayed and Al put down the novel, snuffing out the candle and commencing with his morning routine. Before he left, he checked in on the bedroom and saw his daughter Marnie standing in her trundle bed.
“Shhh,” he said and coaxed her towards him, setting down his satchel before he picked her up. He rubbed her fine hair and whispered in her ear. “Go back to sleep. Mama will get you up in a little while.”
Marnie obeyed, snuggling under the blanket. She was generally well behaved, so her compliance wasn’t surprising, but he was always worried she was going to start crying and wake up Burdet too early. His wife let out a loud snore and Al sighed in relief. He kissed Marnie, tucked her in, and began his commute into the city.
The morning was bright with a lingering moisture from the dew that still clung to the blades of grass in his tiny front yard. In a few hours the temperatures would rise into the nineties and linger there until the late afternoon. Anyone outdoors would wish for the coastal breezes that made the day bearable. Days like that would continue throughout the rest of spring, into summer, and finally bring relief only towards the end of autumn.
Al could begin to tell when he was moving from his section of the city into Lark, one of Whitney’s business districts, by the loudness. It wasn’t just because of the conversations, either. Heavy boots clunked against the cobblestones for shipbuilders and stonemasons. Polished Oxfords clacked, their owners likely to be lawyers, merchants, or doctors on their way to their businesses closer to Brion Square, the heart of the city. And the lords and ladies about their duties would travel in style and comfort, a horse-drawn carriage with all the noise from the metal wheels, the carriage’s bearings, and, of course, the clopping of the horse’s hooves.
Al made hardly any noise, just an occasional scrape on the stones as he dragged his feet into all the shops he normally purveyed. After buying his pastry and ingredients for a sandwich, each with stifled yawns and eye-rubbing, he found himself only a few blocks from his work.
His breakfast was a doughy lump in his mouth, tasteless and unfulfilling. His stomach roiled. His hands were sweaty and wiping them on his shirt only made sticky smears from the danish’s icing. When he stopped to gather his thoughts, he almost believed that he could smell the acrid odor of burnt wood in the air.
The moment of truth, he thought, as he stepped around the corner.
His eyes darted around as he looked for any signs of a disaster. There were no crowds gawking at the damage, no brigades fighting any lingering flames. Not a single pedestrian stopped to note anything strange about Jindahl and Stohr. Everything was absolutely normal.
Relief flooded Al. He let out the breath he had been holding, along with a light laugh. His workplace was fine and he still had a job. That was great!
Some small, deeply buried part of him awoke. Now that he was off the hook, he was surprised to find that a tiny bit of him had hoped the building had burned down. Al shook his head and began pondering more important things. Like, how was the building intact? He knew that the oil had caught fire. He had seen it. And being so close to the stacks of wooden boxes the warehouse kept for rental storage, he was sure one of them would have burned. Had it just snuffed out?
Luck, or something else, had intervened. Al entered his workplace, greeted the secretaries, and entered his office. After closing the door, he quickly changed into the button-up shirt, slacks, and stole he had folded neatly and carried in the bottom of his satchel. The shirt and pants were a dark blue with sharp creases and stiff piping. It looked vaguely like a palace worker’s uniform, though with much less ornamentation. The stole, which he pinned to his chest, was gray to denote the year he had graduated from Amandorlam. It was littered with commendations at the end, though no one ever bothered to ask him what they meant.
He eyed the client list that had been tacked to the outside of his door. Full, another relief. He’d be able to make up for yesterday’s error by working hard today.
Al lit the candles in his room and arranged his tools, mostly paintbrushes. As a wizard, there were so many jobs that he could do. Instead of a career as an artist or musician, careers magnified by wizarding abilities and able to make exceptional amounts of money, he had chosen to be a touch wizard. If he’d had the talent, he definitely would have chosen something else, but he had tried everything and found himself lacking in all forms of art.
His morning was sluggish. He almost fell asleep several times during his sessions. When he was tired, his mind was a sloppy, exhausted mess. He decided it was best not to make small talk with his clients.
He was considering skipping lunch and sleeping in his office when Ember opened the door. She was the manager of Milxner’s, the back portion of the building, and rarely came to the front. And while she was attired well in a violet dress of petticoats with a patterned panel in the front, she didn’t wear her stole. It was frowned upon for wizards working in less than upstanding positions to wear it and besmirch the reputation of others.
“Ember? How can I help you?” he asked.
She sat on the bench near the door that was for client’s to put their possessions during their session. She needed to smooth out the skirts of her dress for a few moments before she was satisfied. “Alpine. How are things?”
“I’m well, I suppose. My client list looks great for today. I’m very happy.”
“Indeed? That’s great. Much better than yesterday, I’m guessing.” She arched an eyebrow, as if she wanted him to expand on that. In the meantime, she pulled a fan from her sleeve and waved it slowly in front of her face.
“Um, yes. Things don’t always work out.” He shrugged and finished wiping down and cleaning the padded contraption in the center of the room that resembled a chair. “How are things at Milxner’s?”
“Wonderful. Quite busy, to be frank. I wish we had more employees to take some of the contracts we’re having to turn down.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He folded the cloth in thirds and placed it on the armrest. “I was heading to lunch. If you need anything, let me…”
“Sit,” she said sharply.
Al sat awkwardly on the edge of the chair. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no problem, Alpine. I just think we need to have a talk.”
“A talk? About what, Ember?”
“The fire, Alpine. Tell me about the fire.”