“Thank you for taking time out of your day to show me this, Ms Sharity.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all. Jay doesn’t like letting the others touch his stuff, but since you’re his friend, I had to let you see it.”
The middle aged woman pulled out a handkerchief, embroidered with the sun at its center, complemented by cross-stitched patterns around its edges.That was the most complex design I had seen so far; most of the others she had shown me were regular plain shirts and pants Jay made for his siblings.
But those were all rather simple designs made to conserve as much cloth as possible. This however, was one of Jay’s own personal crafts.
Other than the handkerchief, there were only a handful other items he made for himself. All of them were about the same size too— no clothes, and no accessories. Just small, simple items, which all had detailed patterns sewn into it. Once again, probably to not waste too much material over a hobby.
I pulled open a wardrobe, and stared at the objects lying inside it.
Next to the unused embroidery hoop was a small, black hat. About half the size of my palm. It was unfinished, and I couldn't clearly tell that was what kind of hat it was supposed to be. If I had to guess, I would say it was a top hat.
“Oh, so that’s what he was working on last night. I was wondering why he stayed up so late.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Do you know what this is?”
“Indeed,” Ms Sharity said, beaming. “It’s the Plague Doctor’s hat.”
Blinking, I looked back down at the small hat. It really did not look like a miniscule version of the wide brimmed hat the Plague Doctor wore. Maybe that was because it was still unfinished, but I doubted it. The proportions were all off!
“That boy. He’s so considerate, really. Even though he always acts like he doesn’t care.” The woman shook her head, placing her hands on her hip.
“Is he making this for someone?” I asked. It was too small to fit on anyone but a baby’s head— and even then it would barely fit.
“Yes.” She nodded her head. “It’s for Mister Will.”
My blank stare needed no words to accompany it as Ms Sharity quickly began to elaborate.
“Mister Will is the mole Callie brings with her wherever she goes. The stuffed animal. It was one of the donations we got back when our orphanage still was… well, it’s nothing you should worry about. But she brings him around almost everywhere she goes, and doesn’t like sharing him with anyone.”
I was just going to assume Callie was the crying girl I saw when I first arrived in the orphanage house. “And she wanted to give Mister Will the same hat as the Plague Doctor?” I wagered another guess.
“Well, no. You see, Callie never likes sharing Mister Will with anyone. But after Patty got sick, she must’ve been so worried, she’s now sharing him with her. And after the Plague Doctor cured us— praise Her light, I still don’t know how he did that— Patty wanted the hat that he wore. However, we can’t really afford it, so she’s been down since last night.”
Hasn’t it only been a day since she met the Plague Doctor? I would have assumed she would be more grateful that she was alive. But she did look like she was barely even two years old. So maybe her priorities were vastly different than mine.
Whatever it was, I did not even need to fill in the blanks this time; although Ms Sharity still felt the need to explain it to me. “Since we couldn’t get a real one, Jay must have figured that this was the next best thing.”
“He’s such a kind boy,” I remarked.
“He really is.”
There was a moment of silence as the woman stared deeply into the tiny, incomplete hat; I could tell that she loved her children very much. The moment ended when a girl opened the door to the room.
“Hey Ms Sharity, have you seen Jay?” Hannah— the girl who found the Plague Doctor— poked her head in.
“He said he was buying some materials he needed for sewing,” Ms Sharity replied. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“He should have been back by now.” The girl frowned. “He better not have gotten into trouble. I’ll go find him.”
“You be safe too, ok?” The middle aged woman called out, as Hannah left. She turned back to me, and smiled in assurance. “I’m sure he’s fine. Don’t worry.”
“Mhm.” I made a noise in acknowledgement.
Then I decided to ask a question that had been on my mind for a while.
“Ms Sharity, can I ask why does everyone call you that and not, well, ‘mom’? You treat them like they’re your own children, and they clearly think of you as their mother. So why the formality?”
Apparently that was not the best question to ask, as the woman’s demeanour immediately became apprehensive.
“It might not be something you’d enjoy talking about, Melas. It might be… boring to hear.”
“I’m fine as long as you’re comfortable with it.”
I knew that ‘boring’ did not actually mean boring, and that it was a code word adults used to get kids to talk about something else. I was not a kid though, so it did not work on me.
Ms Sharity chewed on her lip, considering what I said. Before finally speaking. “It’s from back when we were more well funded. When there was an actual director managing the orphanage, and I was just a helper.”
“What happened?” I asked, seeing the direction where the conversation was going.
“It was nothing that could have been prevented. People simply… stopped donating as much. The director quit their job as a result, but I couldn’t just leave all these children alone. Well, back then, Eaton was the youngest one here— he’s really grown so much.” The woman sighed wistfully, before shaking her head. “The children would always refer to the director with respect. Like he was their teacher. So when I became the director of the orphanage, they were just too used to what they were taught, they couldn’t call me anything else. So when I brought the younger children in— Jay, Hannah, and the others— the title stuck, and I couldn’t get them to call me anything else. But I know that they call me by my name with as much affection as any child would call their mother ‘mother’.”
It was another moment. One where Ms Sharity slowly put Jay’s things back where they belonged, taking in each item as she carefully placed them into the cupboards. Of course, I let the moment run its course; I did not want to interrupt it.
However it was using the end of this moment that gave me the perfect segue— a transition to the real reason why I came here in the first place. Not that I did not care about Jay’s sewing or the orphanage. Most of my questions came naturally because I was actually interested in it. However this was far more important than either of those.
Finally, she stopped, and I spoke.
“The… donations,” I started.
“You said there was a lack of funding. Less donations. Did that have anything to do with those bad guys from yesterday?” I asked bluntly, since I was sick and tired of being subtle.
“The bad guys from— the debt collectors?” Ms Sharity exclaimed.
“I was just curious. I did not know what was going on when I came over yesterday, and Jay wouldn’t tell me either. I… they were scary. I don't want anything bad to happen to Jay…”
Although I was worried for him, I was more worried about the orphanage in general. But I did not say that.
“There’s no need to worry, Melas.” The woman lowered herself to meet my gaze. “The Plague Doctor took care of them. You saw how amazing he was, right?”
“Yes, but what if they come back! The Plague Doctor won’t be here forever. What if there are more of those bad guys. I’m… why did they even come here? Why did this have to happen...” I trailed off.
Technically, I was telling the truth here: I did want to know the answer to these questions. I could tell Ms Sharity was reluctant to answer, but I gave my best puppy dog eyes and lied straight out of my teeth.
“I’m just so worried. I couldn’t sleep last night because of them. What— what if they come after me too? I’m so scared...”
Ms Sharity finally gave in. She pulled me into a hug, and began whispering. “It’s ok, it’s ok. They won’t come after you, or Jay. They’re bad people, but… they’re only after me. Because I made a mistake.”
“But you’re such a good person, you don’t deserve this! Why would they do that— be so cruel— to you?” I asked, digging for information.
Her voice came out trembling. “I... needed the money. To keep everyone safe. So I went to some bad people. I thought as long as I paid them back on time, it would all be fine. But it wasn’t. They kept increasing what I owed them and threatened to take my children or this house away if I couldn’t pay them back. But I couldn’t let that happen, so I offered myself.”
So she used herself as a guarantee for the loan, because she obviously could not let them take the kids away, and they needed a home to live in. It made sense, and it more than confirmed that these people were slavers— or at least, traded with slavers. We were in the border with the Free Lands after all.
“And where were they going to take you?”
“I’m not sure,” Ms Sharity said, voice heavy, “but I think they would have brought me to... work for them.”
I picked up on her implications, and decided not to address it. She was most likely only half right, anyways. So I played dumb, asking the question I needed the answer to. “Work where?”
“I’ve only ever been there once, when I first signed the contract with them. They brought me to this building far outside from town— about halfway to the next town over.”
“Where is it? I need to know, so I can tell my father to avoid that road.” I quickly brought up my cover story I made up earlier to justify why I had to know about it; I told her my parents were traveling merchants, and I was just visiting this town for a while and that we would be leaving soon.
“We took a wagon there, and went off road at an intersection. However I think it was— no, it had to be more than ten miles from here. We took the western road there, and maybe went up north towards the end? I did not pay too much attention back then.” Ms Sharity shook her head. “I know it’s a bit of a detour since you said you'll be going to the Capital, but you’ll be fine as long as you tell your father to take the south road first.”
“I see,” I said, content with finally getting some information.
It was not much, but I had to make do with it, as I was positive I was not going to get more. Maybe if I visited other towns and asked them about it, they would be able to provide something concrete.
This was enough for now though, so I bowed my head slightly. “Thank you, Ms Sharity. I feel much better thanks to you.”
“I’m glad you do, Melas. I didn’t mean to bring you down while you were visiting.”
“You didn’t. I’m really grateful for what you told me. And I was the one who mentioned it in the first place.”
“No, no.” Ms Sharity refuted. “But that’s enough talking about difficult things. Come, why don’t you stay for a bit until Jay comes back? I have some snacks— cookies, biscuits— prepared.”
I was about to take my leave, but my ears perked up. Snacks? Don’t mind if I do!
“Well, if you insist. I’ll stay for a bit and try one or two.”
It was rude to turn down an invitation from others. I truly could not help it. That just basic etiquette, and my mom did not raise a rude daughter. I was trapped. So I really had no choice but to accept and eat a bunch of food.
“It was really delicious, Ms Sharity,” I said, licking my lips to get any crumbs that were left.
“Oh, you’re such a polite girl, Melas. If you want more, you can come visit anytime.”
I nodded, and made way for the door; another hour had passed, and I had things to do. If I was being honest, although I had no other obligations, I wanted to leave this town soon.
I had planned to go after collecting my Witch’s hat tomorrow, which may or may not happen depending on what I found at the gang’s hideout. And since it was already evening, I wanted to check out their base now. But before I could leave, the door flew open, and a boy ran in.
It was Jay. And his clothes were torn and tattered, and he was panting heavily.
Well, the former was not typically unusual, but it quite clearly had more rips on it than before. And as for the latter…
He was bruised all over.
“Jay, are you ok?”
Ms Sharity and Eaton both ran up to him at the same time. The boy was still catching his breath, but he immediately glanced up and spoke hurriedly.
“Hannah— they took Hannah!”
“What?” Ms Sharity stared with her mouth open, completely aghast. “Who did? What happened?”
“A group of thugs. They came out of nowhere and attacked us when we were going back.” He babbled an explanation.
Eaton snapped. “Why? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” Jay protested, tears forming in his eyes. “I didn’t do anything. We were just walking! I— I didn’t even do anything wrong today. I was just trying to improve my sewing— find someone to teach me— and Hannah got mad at me for being out so late. But then they show up and now you’re mad at me as well! I really don't know what's going on. I didn't do anything!”
“Calm down, Eaton. This is not Jay’s fault.”
The teenage boy clamped his mouth shut, and muttered an apology. “I… sorry.”
“I didn’t want her to get taken, but I couldn’t do anything but run. I tried to fight— I tried…” he trailed off.
Ms Sharity wrapped her arms around him, despite looking incredibly worried too. But she nevertheless tried to comfort him. “It’s ok. Hannah is a strong girl. But we need to get the town guards. Before anything bad happens to her.”
“I— I didn’t do anything wrong.” Jay sniffled. “Who would do this? Why would they...”
“The guys from yesterday would,” I stated simply. “They wouldn’t have given up after a single setback.”
Everyone spun around to look at me.
It was shocking to them, but not to me. Unlike them, I was not personally invested in the situation, so I could think clearly at the moment; although they were in denial right until I said it outright, they probably knew the truth deep down even before I said a thing.
Multiple voices began speaking at once.
“We need to get the guards now, Eaton. Can you run over there?”
“They won’t be able to do anything. We need to get the Plague Doctor— he can help us!”
“Ms Sharity, big brother Eaton, what’s going?”
“What happened to Hannah? Where did she go?”
Someone was crying, and everybody was panicking. Ms Sharity tried to calm everyone down— to try and get things under control. But it was not working. Because no one knew what to do; they were lost, just as Jay was when he first came in.
But unlike them, he had time to process what happened. To fully understand it. So he turned to me, eyes still watered over, and he begged me.
“Please, can you do anything? Hannah— she’s my sister. I love her. If anything happens to her, I don’t know what to do with myself.”
I took the boy’s hand, and clasped it under my palms. I held his gaze, giving him the most kindly, gentle, and soothing smile I could.
“Don’t worry,” I promised, “I’ll bring her back no matter what.”
And I meant every word of that sentence. Especially the last part.