The first chapter of book one.
In case any of you haven't read it yet!
The Tortured Tutor Series Book One: Smitten Tin
Chapter One: Enter the Poisoner
The man who walked exhaustedly into the Sly Grog that early evening and sat, slumped, at the bar, was dressed with a level of practicality foreign to most of the patrons. A battered, broad-brimmed hat shielded his pale face from the sun--and, as far as possible, from view; his sweat-soaked white shirt and brown canvas trousers were similarly chosen to protect him from the heat, and to render him unremarkable when he moved among the commoners. He set his leather satchel on the bar, keeping it carefully within view.
He’d spoken to no one when he entered the bar. His eyes didn’t scan for friends or acquaintances. On the contrary, he seemed to be concentrating on ignoring everyone present. A truly careful observer could have seen, from the slight tension in his face and shoulders, that he was ill at ease. And this was odd, because most of those who were able to find and enter the Sly Grog relaxed instantly, secure in the knowledge that they were among their own kind.
His tired eyes scanned the drinks on offer. He was pleased to note they still carried Bacchanals: Essences, Tastes, and Hints. He was, finally, in a position to afford to drink nothing but Essences; if all went according to plan, he could expect the best of everything--the best of everything purchasable, he reminded himself grimly--from now on. But what Essence would he choose? Gall and wormwood, he thought, he already had in abundance. Essence of Love, or of Happiness, would only bring him further pain when the fleeting, false comfort of the drink wore off. He wisely ordered purified water (truly purified, by their own kind, not the merely-filtered stuff ordinary humans thought pure), and a bottle of Hint of Contentment, reflecting as he paid that he had spent his childhood despising the Hint series as a mortifying reminder of his family’s necessary penny pinching. Now the Hints were all he dared expose himself to, and even those tasted bitter.
Finally relaxing enough to look around, he saw, to his horror, that the uniforms and morning dress of the rest of the customers were for once not just a pretentious mark of difference from the non-magickal commoners, but were being worn for a purpose: some sort of party was in progress. He groaned inwardly.
‘I grew up drinking Hints myself,’ said the young woman behind the bar, cheerfully. She wore an octopus charm on a chain around her neck; an unusual insignia, and one he didn’t recognize. ‘It’s hard to give them up, isn’t it? The Tastes feel overdone, if you’re used to the Hints.’ Callobius glared at her coldly. He resented familiarity from strangers, and it was particularly unwelcome from waitstaff. Her clothes and accent pegged her as hopelessly common, not in the non-magickal sense (she could hardly be working here unless she was one of the Wellborn--part of that talent-based elite who called themselves, variously, the Nobility or the Elite or, most often, the Wellbred). No, she had the misfortune to be clearly marked out as belonging to the lower end of the nearly inescapable hierarchy of class. Having himself escaped, he was ruthless in correctly assessing others. This poor drab had probably never tasted an Essence in her life, and he guessed she’d gone to work straight out of Secondary school.
‘Do I know you?’ he asked disdainfully, and she flushed.
‘No,’ she said, sounding markedly less friendly, ‘but I know you. I was three years behind you at school.’
‘And then went straight to work,’ he sneered, unable for some reason to stop himself. ‘Admirably productive.’ Her flush deepened, and she moved away to the far end of the bar.
‘Algae, old thing!’ cried a voice, addressing someone behind Cassobius, and he turned. He didn’t recognize the speaker, but he’d always gotten along reasonably well with Algae, whose talents in biology, most especially botany and chem, he’d admired at school. Those could, he knew, prove useful skills. And Algae, an affable and shy boy, usually deeply absorbed in his own pursuits, had at least had the merit of being less overbearing and hostile than most of his former classmates. Algae, catching his eye now, politely disengaged himself from the crowd and made his way over to sit at the bar.
‘I didn’t expect to see you here today,’ Algae said. ‘Not that it isn’t good to see you. I’ve been hearing some damned strange rumours about you. I thought maybe we should give you up for dead.’
‘Why, what’s today?’ Callobius asked, barely listening to the rest.
‘Phil,’ said Algae, looking shocked. ‘Oh, hell: you don’t mean you really don’t know?’ The use of the old nickname--he’d been ‘Philtres’ at school, at least to those who’d bothered talking to him for any reason other than to torment him--made him almost nostalgic, an unfamiliar feeling, but Algae’s obvious distress made his heart sink.
‘What’s today?’ he repeated, his voice flat and cold.
Algae flinched. ‘Naming celebration,’ he mumbled. ‘Cervus and Kalla’s son. The ceremony was earlier today.’
Callobius wished himself anywhere other than where he was, but his face gave nothing away. ‘Just my luck,’ he said bitterly. ‘Well: I’d hate to be the only one caught not raising a glass to the superstar’s spawn, I suppose. Here’s to the little bastard.’ Algae looked miserable, knowing the news had to be painful, though not understanding the full degree of the hurt his news had inflicted. Callobius gestured for the bartender to bring him another Hint. She poured it, expressionless, and the ice tinkled mockingly as she set the glass down sharply on the bar.
He scanned the room, noticing now the air of overexcited celebration. And then he felt his breath catch and his heart beat faster, because she was there, stepping from inside one of the private rooms, that hated child in her arms. Kalla. She looked tired, he thought. Strained. Cervus’ damnable infant was gurgling happily, his blue eyes a painful match to Kalla’s own, but his shock of black hair was undiluted Cervus. Kalla’s hair was a burnished chestnut brown, shot through with highlights of bronze and copper. Callobius’ own lank, dingy brown hair had always looked even more ordinary next to hers.
Cervus stepped out behind her, surrounded as always by his friends. ‘I think my son’s had enough excitement for one day,’ he said, his voice as always brash and overconfident, easily to the end of the bar. Callobius scornfully supposed he pitched it that way purposely, so none of his adoring public would miss a single scintillating moment of his charmed life. ‘You don’t mind taking him home, do you, Kalla?’
‘Of course not,’ she said, and smiled, but to Callobius’ eyes it was a wan smile. Something was wrong, he thought, and that fool and his pack of hangers-on don’t see. As she stepped through the door into the gathering shadows of early evening Callobius rose to his feet, intending to follow her. The room spun as he stood, and he heard the laughter and inane comments recede, and then Algae’s worried voice, and Callobius crashed to the floor, unconscious.
When he woke, it was afternoon on the next day. And Kalla Hart, they informed him, was dead. Murdered.