To the Attention of the Most Honorable Lord Magistrate, in regards to the matter of Black Bertha and the missing Porter household funds.
I, a clerk of the 7 th court, am writing this letter at Bertha’s behest, to lay out the honest facts of her case, and I beseech you to listen to them patiently and thoughtfully, as Bertha is a good woman, the mother of six small children, who are entirely dependent upon her for their daily bread and for the roof over their heads. The charges that have been brought against her are completely false . . .
Bertha’s children weren’t so small these days, and one of them had been hanged for thieving, but Tess didn’t think the judge needed to know that.
“Put in that that lying bastard whoreson has been sniffing around my skirts since the first day I came to work for him. I slapped Porter’s face for grabbing at my tit just yesterday, and that’s why he’s laid claim against me now, saying I’ve been skimming off the household accounts. Tell him that, Tess! And right in the middle of preparations for Starflower Fest—as if I didn’t have enough to worry about, with just five days to go! Do you know what horseradish and ginger are going for this week? And coloring drops for the cookies? But the mistress insists on all the traditional festival foods, the same as what the lords are serving, or as near as I can get to them, and she’s got some fool idea she wants me to make cookies shaped like fireworks . . .”
“I know what to write, Bertha. Just trust me—I’ll do my best for you, I swear.” Tess knew well that her best might not be good enough; letter or no, the judges tended to side with the wealthier party, particularly if said party were willing to slip a few coins to the judge. Bertha had no coins to spare, but Tess owed her a favor, and so she dipped her quill again. Maybe her letter would help. Anything was possible.
The Brown Dog was smoky today; the innkeeper, Joss, had responded to the crisp tang of fall in the air by piling the fire high with logs—cheap bastard had chosen green logs, which clouded the air with smoke and a peaty odor. Tess’s eyes stung as she bent over her writing, and she was glad that Bertha was the last of today’s clients. She didn’t much like the Brown Dog; it tried to be posh, catering to the thrill-seekers from the respectable side of the river, but didn’t get the details quite right. It felt false, like a bad forgery, and made her spine itch. But it was convenient for meeting clients from across the river, the ones who didn’t want to come farther into Riverside.
Bertha worked as a cook across the river now, in a merchant’s house, but Tess had known her in more desperate days, when they’d both been Riverside girls, trying to make their way in the world. Bertha, a little older, had been working in a real pit of a cookshop back then, the kind that served rat stew—oh, they called it beef stew, but everyone knew better. Still, the way Bertha spiced it, you almost couldn’t taste the rats.
Tess hadn’t had to eat rat stew in a long time, but she remembered those days, when she’d been young and hungry—and stupid, she had to admit; truly stupid for leaving the home she shared with the rest of her sprawling family of cousins and aunts, grandparents, and her parents, of course, all dedicated to the art of the con in one way or another, whether it was coining or forging, sleight of hand or the lost-handkerchief trick. All her learning and cunning had gone to hell the moment Long Alfie came along, with his sweet words and knowing hands, making all kinds of promises he kept only long enough to make her realize he was also a bully and a drunk.
While she hid from Alfie and his pals, too afraid and ashamed to go back to her parents, it was Bertha who had slipped her bowls of stew that Tess couldn’t pay for, and Bertha who’d finally convinced her to swallow her pride and go back to the family. Who made her pay for her mistakes before they took her back. Her father, tears running down his face, had laid into her, saying, “You can’t be stupid in Riverside, Tessie . . . The heart’s a liability here, the heart is for suckers, you hear me? Never, never, never again . . .”
Tess’s hand shook a little at the memory, and she had to redraw the line, adding a flourish, as if she’d intended it that way all along. That was the way of it in Riverside—never let them know they’d gotten to you.
“There, Bertha. That’s done. Good luck to you.”
“Thanks, Tess. Shake on it.” Bertha spit on her hand and held it out, and Tess spit on her own and shook.
Tess added, “Now, if you need anything else—an appeal, maybe, you let me know.”
“Oh, I will. And you take care with that foreign girl. I don’t know what sort of spices they put in their food, but I’m sure it’s not healthful.” The woman climbed heavily out of her seat on the bench—six children had left her with a generous amount of weight to shift. The seat was promptly filled by a slender man, half her size, and one...