Another piece I started a while ago:

Indulgence Day was coming and the city had been ready for weeks. Merchants had turned smugglers, their goods still illegal, or highly taxed, but the king was rumored to be attending a hundred parties in one night, and the feasts were all anyone could talk about. Drugs and delicacies were showing up in every corner of the city and gold was turned to butter, greasing palms. It was a night for pride, for greed, for ego, and holding back was simply not done.

Never did the city truly sleep at night, its underworld coming to life in a burst of sunset, but now even those honest folk who paid their taxes and cleaned their gutters were rubbing shoulders with the seediest and most murderous of brigands.

What was the point in murdering your neighbor tonight when they would be feeding you tomorrow? Even the lowest of scum wanted to be treated like a friend once in a while.

Indeed, food was the most talked about, but the drugs were something to see. Nothing for sale, mistress, certainly not, those things are illegal didn’t you know? But come back tomorrow and I might have something to show you… Dens and Squeezes and cheap tents were populating the place like some kind of plague. No one should Daze alone, sir, consider this place to lay your body while your mind wanders.

Merchants were shipping in wines and liquors and toys from across the oceans and selling them for three times their cost. Of course, come Indulgence Day and those goods would be all but free, see the first taste is the sweetest and I was kindest to you, was I not?

Every fifteen years brought a taste of indulgence, and every celebration threatened to outdo the one before.

Of course, there were the downsides.

Grayson studied the city from over his knees, pulled tightly to his chest. Someone had set off sparkers and they lit several streets in blue and green lights. Shrieks of celebration and good humor filled the air and he watched as the city’s guards made their way quickly to the spot to douse the offending sparkers and arrest whomever was left to take blame. Indulgence Day wasn’t until tomorrow, after all, and sparkers were illegal in residential neighborhoods.

The boy sighed and unfolded his length across his bed, turning away from his window. The others in his dorm were still watching the festivities, all wondering if they’d be let out to join in. He doubted it. Prisoners weren’t given free days.

“What’s that?” Jasper asked.

Grayson shook his head, not realizing he’d spoken aloud.

“You know she’ll tan your hide if she hears you muttering about prisoners again,” Jasper warned. A red flare lit the side of his face from outside the window and he turned back to watch.

“Think we’ll get to go out in it?” Thomas asked eagerly.

“Aye, and risk them losing us to the crowd? Not likely,” Bren snapped. Like Grayson, he knew they weren’t going to be set free, even this one night.

“You know we’re turning fifteen this year,” Elijah said softly, face pressed to the bars.

“Aye, shit-head, hard to forget,” Bren rolled his eyes, standing from his bottom bunk and pacing the room.

“I just mean we get our assignments is all,” the smaller boy pointed out. “Actual training instead of cleaning and maintenance and all.”

“What’ll you get sent to, do you think?” Jasper asked.

“Bren’s going for a soldier and no doubt,” Felix piped up from his bunk.

“Aye, and they’ll see me fight,” the larger boy said, jabbing his thick fists at imaginary foes.

“I can’t think of a trade I couldn’t do,” Thomas said, stretching out on his bunk.

“So long as it doesn’t take reading,” Elijah added.

“They’ll send Grayson to the monks without a doubt,” Felix continued, obviously enjoying the thought of their assignments.

“I’ll die before I’m locked away there,” Grayson said softly.

The cheerful atmosphere dulled and they could hear the sounds of the city clearly through the windows.

“Look, Bren, your future brothers are bringing peace to our humble home,” Jasper said, pointing at another group of trotting soldiers.

Bren stared at them through the bars, eyes narrowed. “I won’t fight city people,” he said fiercely. “Send me to fight in a war, but them’s just the same as me and I won’t fight them.”

“You’ll fight who you’re told or you’ll be locked away,” Elijah pointed out.

Bren spread his arms to encompass their tiny bunk room. “What, locked away like this? What can they do to me as a man that I didn’t endure as a boy?”

“You’re a boy still,” Thomas goaded him. “No matter the size of your muscles. Or your head.”

“Five years as apprentice, then ten service years and my debt to the crown is paid,” Bren snapped back. “I’ll be a man grown with a full purse and I’m going to buy a farm and marry the first woman to smile my way. Soldiering is easy.”

“Nah, craftsman is easy,” Thomas argued. “No fighting wars – just honest toil every day, my meals better than hardtack. Keep me in the city is all I ask. I’ll work stone or wood or glass all they want. And keep your farm; I’ll have a shop and a dozen apprentices under me when my service is up. Plenty of merchants made their start as crown bastards.”

“What about the monks?” Felix asked. “Grayson, you think they’ll let you free after your time? I hear they have no terms of service; that they make you take vows and you have to stay forever.”

“What do you know, fat-head?” Bren asked. “You’ve never seen one of the damn monks.”

“Have!” Felix said indignantly. “I was sweeping the courtyard and he came up behind me nearly silent. I thought I was seeing a ghost and nearly shit myself. But he just eyed me up and down and walked on.”

“You saw a man in a robe and figure it to be one of the monks out for a jolly stroll,” Bren scoffed.

Felix raised himself on one arm. “You weren’t there! It was one of those creepy bastards, I tell you!”

Bren waved his hands. “Keep it down or we’ll all be set for laps in the morning.”

“We’re already set for laps in the morning,” Elijah said. “Thomas spoke back to a master again.”

“You bastard…” Bren said softly.

“Names like that might hurt my feelings,” Thomas answered cheekily. “He was asking for it, droning on about grammar like he does.”

“If you knew languages like Grayson, you wouldn’t keep getting us in trouble,” Elijah sighed.

“If I knew languages like Grayson, I’d be headed for the monks in nine months, wouldn’t I?” He shrugged. “I’d rather be illiterate if it means I get to go outside this place once in a while.”

The conversation lulled again as the boys filled the room with thoughtful silence.

“You’ll have to sneak out, Grayson,” Felix said at last. “Tell us what it’s like in there. No one knows what they do, really.”

“We’ll be spread out like seeds,” Bren argued. “Once our apprenticeships start, I doubt we’ll see each other again.”

“We’ll find one another,” Thomas said confidently. “You all just come find me at my shop and we’ll reminisce about the good days.”

“Days like today?” Bren scoffed.

“Aye, when we were young and full of hope for the dreadful future. Bring your wife, Bren, and I’ll gladly seduce her from you.”

The two scuffled quietly until Thomas called submission, as usual. Bren was too big to fight fairly.

The conversation was unrecoverable by that point, and they all lay down, staring out the window or turned carefully from it, trying to sleep through the sounds of the city preparing for its day of indulgence.

To me, it has a sense of the biblical Year of Jubilee. But these kids who were conceived on the Day of Indulgence but their families couldn’t or wouldn’t keep them for whatever reason are then raised by the state and given some measure of education and sent to apprenticeships, etc. As usual, no idea where it’s going, but I enjoyed rediscovering it!

January 31, 2021

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