The flicker of a flame slowly filled a room as the scientist carrying it climbed the winding staircase in their tower. A small candle holder with one hand, wax dripping onto the skin too worn to recognize the heat. In the other, a small metal cage crammed with rats. They scratched and squeaked, trying to escape their prison. There was no room in the cage for any of them to move around; they just wormed over one another as they searched for an escape. The man placed the cage down into a large metal container. As the scientist released the latch of the cage, the rats poured out like a torrent of black water. Their bodies rolled over one another as they started to scatter in all directions, scampering up the walls. Their claws failed to make a purchase, and they would slide back down. After watching them roam around the container, he wandered off deeper into his lab. The rats panicked as the sound of clattering glass and the solid thuds of large leather books slamming into the ground filled their metal pen. Raining down from above, hay buried the rats as the scientist shook out a wooden container; looking into the crooked box, he plucked the remaining pieces before grabbing another. Box after box, he filled the rat’s pen, giving them a place to hide and to calm themselves. Over the course of the afternoon, the scientist added odd bits and ends for the rats to play with, eat, or hide in. By the end of the night, he watched as they nestled down, warm, fed, and fast asleep. He gave a wary smile before he himself took to some nearby left-out food and went to bed.
The golden rays of the sun poured in through the wooden slats of his window, illuminating a thick stream of dust. His eyes flittered open to the striking pain of the light, his pupils rapidly changed size as he buried his face into the crook of his arm. Sluggish groans escaped his mouth as he begrudgingly lowered his legs to the ground, sitting himself upright on the side of his bed. His eyes scanned his room once they were free from the direct light of the sun; they skimmed all the books and papers, and they barely noticed the empty vials that littered the bench tops in his room; it was not until they caught the edge of a plate that they focused. He patted his bare stomach as he wandered over; grabbing the edge of the plate, he scrunched his face and lightly pushed the empty plate back into its resting place. Giving one more glance around the room, he resigned himself to his fate. He searched the room high and low for clothes that he could wear, discarding several that curled the hairs in his nose. Eventually finding something he deemed to be decent, he made his way out of his room. He made a direct line for the spiral staircase that ran through the core of his tower, but before descending, he glanced upwards; turning an ear, he decided to go up. Reaching the level where his rats resided, he peered into their pen.
“Happy enough.” He said to himself; looking back to the closed slats, he looked back to the huddled pile of rats. “How about some sun?” He asked sincerely before opening the slats.
The sun poured in, bathing half of the tub with a warming glow. The rats quickly moved, gathering in the sun. They seemed to separate from their initial pile and split into smaller piles. Their black matted hair all seemed to blend into one another’s coat, giving off the appearance of several large, multi-headed monsters.
“Imagine if I fused you like this; the others here would run screaming.” The scientist laughed to himself. Slapping the edge of the pen, he started to head down the stairs.
“Don’t worry, friends, I will get you some more food. Much better than that dumpster I found you in.” He shouted as he descended the stairway. Stepping down into his lobby, he shifted boxes till he heard a familiar clink; paying attention to the last box, he moved, he grabbed a few golden coins. Juggling them, he counted on his fingers before letting one of the coins fall back into the box.
“I will save you for later, little one.” He whispered, pocketing the rest of his coins. He grabbed a shallow wicker basket by the handle and moved from his home. Taking in a deep breath, he stepped outwards; through his overgrown garden, he pushed open the dragging gate and rested his bare feet upon the warm clay road that resided just beyond his boundaries. He looked to those who wandered around the streets, occasionally catching the corner of a shifting eye and the ends of hushed conversations.
“Starting early today, everyone. Usually, I am in town before I notice the whispers.” He shouted for all around to hear.
Some eyes lowered as they moved away from the man, while others took his words to be a threat and stood as tall as they could, staring down at the man with anger twitching through their faces. With hands on his lower back, the scientist lent side to side, rolling his hips until the cracking of his bones stopped.
“Late night, you know how that is right, Sue?” He jested at the nearest woman who walked past.
Her face scrunched involuntarily at his words before she spat at his feet and covered her face with her thick woolen scarf.
“It isn’t even cold; why the extra layer?” He shouted as the woman tried her best to ignore him.
“Well, since there is no one to chat to, I guess I will be on my way.” He said to himself as he rolled his ankles around; once the clicking stopped, he started a confident stroll into town. He would greet and wave to all who passed, but every time he was met with the same hatred and avoidance. Passing the clay-cladded buildings of the town, he walked near their walls to absorb all their heat.
“Oh, Jason.” He yelled as he jogged forward. “I understand you are busy, but do you think you or one of the other building artisans have some time to do some work on my tower? She has seen better days and seems to be the only building that has not gotten the tile upgrade the lord offered all his residents.”
“No one is going near that building, you freak. Fix it yourself.”
“How? I don’t even have any of these promised tiles.”
“If you actually cleaned your yard, you would have several piles of tiles on your front. Instead, you have a tangle of weeds with tiles underneath them.” Jason snipped as his nose had a drip in it; finally smelling the scientist for the first time, he covered his nose and walked into a nearby building, shouting back at the scientist.
“Burn that place to the ground, and someone may build you something new.”
“It doesn’t pay to destroy progress.” The scientist yelled as the door closed behind Jason.
“I want my upgrade Jason; I will get it.” The scientist yelled at the building as those passing by gave looks of disapproval.
The scientist didn’t turn to see those around him; he jumped slightly and changed the direction of his feet, and headed for the market square.
“The new lord really has gotten this town up on its feet.” He said, looking down at the mud-encrusted around the cuff of his pants, then to others. “I guess I am the only one with the old mud on their clothes or just any mud.” The scientist started to look intently at the clothes of those who wandered the streets. Their colors stood out again, the fired clay that covered the town.
“When did everyone get so fancy? What happened to sack clothes? They are so cheap that it is a no-brainer, really.”
As he let his complaint loose, an elderly woman from a nearby store scoffed at him.
“For someone so smart, you think you could make better clothes, like how you ‘made’ that thing last time.”
“Oh, come on, you old fart, that was just a little mistake. No one got hurt.”
“No one got hurt that time, but what about the next time? You need to leave town, scientist; you are not welcome here.”
“I may not be welcome, but the lord said I could stay. So legally, I can stay here as long as I want, especially since I own a large portion of land in the walls.”
“Unkempt land. It would be better off being burnt to the ground and starting something new. Your tower is a waste of space that will ‘fall’ one day.”
“Careful woman, I don’t kindly to idle threats.”
The elderly woman scoffed.
“Woman? Is that how you address your betters? This is disgraceful behavior that shall…” her voice continued as the scientist smiled and finally entered the market square of the town. The bustle of those trading drowned out the old woman’s complaints.
The scientist forced his way through the crowd, finding stubborn individuals that refused to move as he tried to get past. He rolled his eyes as he slipped through, sometimes having to take an alternate route to get to the stalls of his choice.
“Hey, can I… Hello, I would like…just after the scrap meat…Hey…” The scientist called out, but each time a vendor became free, they turned their head and turned to another client, serving them as if the scientist was not there.
“These townsfolk have rocks in their heads.” He muttered under his breath.
Looking around the butcher’s stall, he grabbed a bag full of expensive cuts of meat; immediately, one of the servers approached him in panic.
“Now that I have your attention, I would love to buy your off-cuts.”
The server snarled and grabbed the bag from a scientist.
“We have two bags; how much do you want?” They mumbled out, their attention already elsewhere.
“I’ll take both thanks.” He raised a gold coin, and the server went to take it, but the scientist pulled it back.
“No, we do this hand in hand. I am not dealing with another theft if I can help it.”
The server looked back to another that just nodded their head before turning back to their own customer. The server took six silver coins from under the counter and placed them in the bag of offcuts. Raising them to be exchanged for the gold coin.
“I think you miss counted.”
“I think you are lucky to be served at all. Anyway, off-cuts are two silver per bag.”
The scientist turned his body so the server could see the large trade board at the front of the market square.
“That is funny because that says the peak price is one silver. I could contact your guild and see what they think of you charging…” The scientist watched as the server immediately put the remaining two silver in the bags once the guild was brought up. Rolling the gold piece in his hand, he extended it as he grabbed the two bags. With a quick jerk, he took the bags of meat and felt the coin leave his hand.
“Pleasure doing business with you, sir.” The scientist said as he bowed his head in jest.
The server turned to another customer, who started to complain about the scientist as soon as they had their attention. The scientist just groaned as he looked up at the still-rising sun.
“This is going to be a long day.” He said as he realized he would have to struggle this day, as he does every other.
By the time he got home, his legs were weary, and his voice raspy from haggling all day. He slammed his goods down on the nearest surface and slumped down onto a box that sunk down as he sat.
“I can’t believe I have to do this every damn time I leave the house.” He groaned as he slammed his head back against the wall. His eyes slowly closed, and he fell to sleep.
Jolting from his nap, he looked to the nearest window; the sun was still where he left it in the sky before he fell asleep. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he grabbed the bags of meat scraps and started to climb his stairs with an additional bag slung under his arm. As he climbed, the steps started slow, but they sped up as their body woke up. Approaching his pen of rats, he dumped the meat in and watched them swarm it.
“I bet that will taste a lot better than the trash piles I found you in.” He said to the rats. “I hope I can give you more than just a good meal soon.” He said, looking back to a large crystal sphere that had a soft blue glow twirling in the center.