He flicked the entrance flaps in an attempt at a knock. After a moment of no answer, he stuck his head in. Possibly due to the layering of trash over it, Draughton didn’t anticipate how big the tent would look on the inside. Meats and herbs hung drying from strings strewn across the ceiling. Tucked in the corners were bits and flecks of the trash outside that seemed to have washed its way into the interior. In the center of the room, a large still, bowl of water sat reflecting Draughton’s visage back at him. Just beyond the basin, the sun found its way in through cracks in the sheet metal ceiling and gaps in tent cloth and rested on a large pile of gold and jewelry, bathing the tent in amber light. Something Draughton hadn’t noticed quite noticed before, but was becoming increasingly evident was the regular stream of rats entering and exiting the tent. And it was the rats who were bringing and taking the small golden devices, managing the pile. Allocating.
“It’s unlucky to enter someone’s home without being invited,” the voice made Draughton jump. “It lets the gremlins in, you know.” Her voice was groggy and sharp like a turning muddy gears and it seemed to be coming from a pile of garbage at the far end of the tent. Some moldy apple cores and crumpled plastic bags rolled to the floor and the head of an old woman peeked out. She was human with pale skin mottled with a red pox. Her wispy, greasy hair had a sickly green tinge to it and her teeth shared a sickly yellow with her rheumy eyes. As she pulled herself from the trash, a set of rats Draughton hadn’t spotted before ran from her pile and out the door of the tent. Draughton unwillingly jumped again as one ran over his boot.
She stood out of her pile, leaving a perfectly carved cavity behind her in the pile of trash. The woman scratched herself, releasing a vile stench of rot and shit with every move she made. Largely this seemed to come from the stitched rat hides she used for clothing and she didn’t give the sense of being a bit bather. She sat cross legged between the basin and the pile of gold. She began to pick random items and hold them above the basin. Draughton watched her take rings that had to have been worth thousands of credits and toss it in a nearby pile of trash. The only thing he saw her keep was a bronze decorative letter opener, clearly less valuable than the rest, but she spent a lot of time inspecting its corners and picking at the grooves in the handle. Eventually she wrapped it in a cloth and kept it next to her. Quickly after, she tossed a diamond necklace in the trash pile.
“Sorry to interrupt if you had anything going on,” Draughton said.
“Rudeness will not get you anywhere young man,” she barked as she shook trash from herself.
“Young man?” he said. “Thirty five isn’t as young as it used to be.”
The woman spit on the soiled floor between them. Separated from its host, the goo of indiscriminate color began to crawl away. “Let me know when you’re in your second century. Lucky for you, I was expecting you. Dreamt it.”
Draughton chuckled to himself. “Apologies mam, but I’m not sure that I’m the man of your dreams.”
“Queen,” barked the old woman.
“The Rat Queen. That’s what the kids call me, anyway. Come in.” It suddenly occurred to Draughton that he hadn’t crossed the threshold. He felt like there was some implication to this, but he consented. He couldn’t get his eyes off of the pile of gold and watch closely as pieces were discarded among cans and bottles.
Draughton allowed himself to settle into the hovel. He hesitated for a moment to let the flap close, but ultimately let it fly, darkening the room but sharpening the light penetrating the canvas tent. “So, the kids call you that, eh?”
He realized, standing across from her how small of a woman she was. She was definitely a terran human, but there was something imp-like about her. He contemplated some mixed lineage, but he had little to no knowledge how that worked out. “Yes,” she said, her stature shrinking even further as she settled into her work. “Now, who are you looking for?” she said, still as if he was getting in the way of some important work.
The words rang a little longer for Draughton than he anticipated. He was holding cards that instinct told him not to show. Despite this woman’s appearance, Draughton could feel that she was perceptive. She could go very far with an inch. He inspected a shelf of skulls on the far side of the tent to seem uninterested. “What gives you the impression that I’m looking for somebody, mam?” he said.
“I see it in the dreams,” she responded. “But I only see shades of it. Rarely do I hear the words, and I only get the faces sometimes. Surprisingly, yours showed up.” She stared at him for a moment. He didn’t budge. “Unless you mean to say you weaved through back alleys in the early morning just to speak to the old garbage witch.” She cackled, showing her few teeth and her black tongue.
Draughton stammered. “I, um, am looking for a child. Little bastard swiped my watch when I got off the shuttle. I’m trying to get it back.” He nodded toward the gold pile.
“Oh,” she said. “Good luck dearie. The children bring me all sorts of gifts. I get them advice or medicine for their families. You’d be amazed at the amenities that people throw away. Fruit skins and any metal you can imagine. The children steal some of the finer things. I buy diamonds and off-world leathers and woods from them with what I can help them with. Some of it they keep.”
“Why not keep all of it?” Draughton asked. “Seems valuable. Get yourself a house, some clothes. Easier to pay for with diamonds than bronze.”
She found this very amusing, cackling loudly and looking at Draughton as if he were a child. “You coreworlders are so innocent. I smell it on you that you know better than that. Monetary isn’t the only type of value.”
Her words and the hungry look in her eye unsettled Draughton. He returned to the task at hand. “This child had black hair,” he said. “And really green eyes. None like I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
This brought her back as well. She almost steemed startled, more intrigued than before. She eyed him, as if scanning for a joke or a mistake. She found none. “Ahhh,” she groaned in her groggy voice. “You are looking for Nikolai.”
“You know the boy?” Draughton felt a pang of excitement jump in his chest. It was a lead, and when in business like his, you took a lead when you had one.
“I do,” she said, looking away from him, clearly distracted, possibly disturbed, by the thought of this boy. “He has no need of my magics. His mother is a very adept witch in her own right.”
Draughton lifted an eyebrow. “Lotta witches around here, huh?”
“More than where you are from, I’m sure,” The Rat Queen giggled.
“So if the kid doesn’t need any help with ‘magic’,” the world remained saccharine in Draughton’s mouth. “Why does he come to you?”
“Favors, trading recipes and information, that like,” the witch said, musing as if she could hear the confused thoughts buzzing around Draughton’s terran head. “One cannot be powerful by themselves, sir. You would do well to remember that. I did see him yesterday, but he did not present a watch. He said that he was returning home with some of the money he made in the city.”
Excitement made Darughton’s brow jump now that they were getting somewhere. “Where can I find this boy’s home? Is it far?”
The Rat Queen chuckled. “It would not do well for me to start revealing the information of clients of mine to anyone who walks through my door. You might not be a businessman, but you are a man of business, are you not? Surely you could understand.”
Draughton could, but he didn’t want to. He wanted his watch back. “Look, I’m not going to hurt the kid. I just want my shit back. There’s gotta be a way we can work this out.”
“I need to know your intentions,” the witch said.
“I just told you,” he said. “To get my watch back.”
The witch rolled her eyes, like she was the one losing her patience. “Not those intentions.” A chill shot through Draughton once again. Could she sense that he was an agent of some sort? Would he have to reveal his mission to get his watch back? Would he have to give up his watch for a mission he didn’t particularly believe in? The Rat Queen could read his tension. “Relax, dearie. I just need something in return.”
Draughton’s fear turned to unease. “Such as?”
“A lock of hair, perhaps?” The witch smiled broadly and produced a pair of scissors from her junk pile.
A bad feeling rolled over the sentiment. “I’m not too familiar with you ‘magic’ types, but I think I know enough not to give a witch a lock of my hair.”
The Rat Queen looked crestfallen. “Oh,” she said, reluctantly replacing the scissor into her junk pile. “Well, the watch seems to mean a great deal to you. Any other object of equal value? Emotionally of course.”
“I live light,” he said and meant it.
“Fine,” she said eyeing him up and down. “There’s another option, but you’re not going to like it.”
“I haven’t liked any of them to be honest,” said Draughton.
“Fuck that,” Draughton said.
“What elses do you have?” the witch said.
“I have money,” he said.
“What use has a witch for money?” she said, guestring at the riches in the pile next to her. “Look, let me break it down. Your story can end right here. You can go ahead and do the things you’re supposed to. And hey, maybe it will all work out.
“But if you want to be something extraordinary, it’s going to take some pain. It might not work out. Everyone might hate you and you might end up with nothing. That’s just the bricks, honey. But…” she paused and stuck long, swollen knuckled, soil-stained finger in his face. “There’s a chance – a slightly, shitty, pitiful chance – that you can come out of this thing a hero.” Draughton fumbled for words, but the Rat Queen pressed ahead. “All you have to do is take some God damned responsibility for it and mean something in your life. Or is that too much for you? You putzing lay-about coward!”
He swatted her finger out of his face and his nostrils flared. “Fine,” he said. “An equal favor in turn.”
A wry smile slid across the witch’s face. “Ah, someone has taught you the words. There is more to you than it looks, Mr. Businessman.”
“I know some things,” he said, extending a hand. “And I don’t know others, like where the fuck my watch is.”
“Indeed,” she said. “A equal favor in turn.” She clasped his hand. “With interest.”