This here was originally intended to be a short backstory for a main character in another of my projects. It has very quickly gone from a small outline to its own tale, and I felt it was time to make it its own entity. Sort of like a prequel, I guess you could say. It introduces James Fitzroy as a young scrap of a boy and follows him through his coming of age and on to his future at the Academy.
A young, dirty blonde scrap of a boy dug through a pile of trash outside the back door to a restaurant. A noise at the end of the alleyway made him jump and look around, alarmed.
A small cat darted past him and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Just a little kitty. Now, there has to be food around here somewhere.”
The boy looked around at the barren and damp alleyway and bit his lip. “No food and nowhere to sleep… Again.”
He shoved his small hands in his pants pockets and began trudging towards the far end of the alley, splashing half-heartedly in the puddles as he went. He was nearly at the end of the alley when a loud and gruff voice boomed out behind him.
“Hey boy. Come here a fast moment.”
The boy nearly jumped out of his skin and turned around. He’d completely missed the man standing in the open doorway, watching him.
“I ain’t done nothin’ wrong, mister. Leave me alone!”
“You’re not in trouble, boy. Come here a moment, that’s all I want.”
The boy glanced around to make sure he had plenty of escape routes before turning back to the man. “Why? What do you want?”
“I wanna talk with you for a moment. Nothing more, nothing less. When we’re done talking you can be on your way if you’d like.”
The boy considered the man’s words and slowly stepped forward, stopping at the edge of the light from the doorway. “What’d you want, mister?”
“What’s your name, boy? And how old are you?”
“I’m James, and I’m eight.”
The man crossed his well-muscled arms. “Well, James, what are you doing digging through trash in an alleyway? I’ve seen you out here six times now in the past week.”
James became defensive. “I’m not hurtin’ nobody, mister!”
“Calm down, boy, I never said you were. I simply asked what you were doing out here.”
“Oh…” James relaxed his posture slightly. “I was just lookin’ for somethin’ to eat is all. What’s it to you?”
A small smile flashed across the man’s expression. “Find anything good?”
The boy dropped his head slightly and stared at the cobblestone at his feet.
“Are you hungry, James?”
The boy carefully looked up at the man. “Why?”
“If you are hungry, I would like to offer you something to eat. I own a restaurant, after all.”
The boy’s sudden joy was quickly overpowered. “Where’s the catch?”
The man grinned. “Smart to ask, boy. The catch is that you have to work for it. See, my wife and I own this restaurant, but she isn’t able to work as much anymore and I could use a hand with the dishes and things, especially in the evening. If you’re willing to help me out, I would be happy to feed you for it. If you do an especially good job I may even be persuaded to give you a few coins for you help, as well.”
James stared at the man, trying to judge if he could trust what the man was telling him. “You promise, mister?”
The man nodded. “Yes, boy. It’s a fair exchange and the only one you’re likely to come across in this city. I’ll even give you til tomorrow night if you’d like to think it over.”
The boy considered his proposal. “How many dishes you got?”
“A fair bit. This is the most famous restaurant in the district after all. However, I will be helping out, as I was in the middle of them when I heard you out here.”
James dug the tip of his shoe into the cobblestone, thinking hard. On the positive side, the man was offering food and possibly a few coins down the road in exchange for a little bit of work. On the not-so-good side, he didn’t know the man, and the man could potentially end up kidnapping him and selling him off.
James’s stomach growled, deciding his answer for him.
“Alright, mister, I’ll help you tonight. And maybe I’ll be back tomorrow. Depends on how good your food is, cuz I gotta say the food in your trash is never very good.”
The man chuckled and stepped back into the doorway. “That’s why it’s in the trash. Come on in, boy. Once you’re done your work we’ll see what you think of the food.”
James cautiously stepped past the man and looked around at the wide kitchen. His eyes widened at how brightly everything sparkled. Everything, that was, except for the pile of dishes in the far corner of the room.
“Alright, boy,” the man said, clapping James on the shoulder and closing the door behind them both. “You see that mountain? It’s all yours. The sink is there, and I trust you can figure out how to use the faucet, soap, and drying towels.
James walked over and stared up at the dishes that reached higher than he was tall and sighed. A moment later, the man watched as the boy’s expression shifted from dread to determined and he set to work. The man couldn’t help but like this kid already.
Nearly an hour had passed since James had set to work, and the man had finished all of his other nightly chores around the restaurant. When he arrived in the kitchen again, he found the sink nearly empty and felt a small surge of pride, considering it normally took him about an hour and a half to do all of the dishes himself. The man set the mop and bucket in the far back corner where they belonged and walked over next to the boy to examine the clean dishes.
“Mighty fine job you’ve done so far, boy,” he said, holding up a sparkling clean plate. “Mighty fine. Say, what would you like to eat?”
The boy thought over his answer carefully before replying. “That depends. If I have a grilled cheese sandwich tonight, can I have some soup with it? Cuz if not, then I just want the soup. It smells awful good over there,” he added, nodding to the large pot the man had left sitting on the stove.
“Of course you can have both. I’d say you’ve earned it.”
The man couldn’t help but smile as the boy’s face lit up.
“You really mean it, mister?”
He nodded. “I do. You’ve done a good job, boy.”
The man turned and set about making the boy his dinner. By the time he’d finished, the boy was drying his last dish. The man turned and led the boy out into the restaurant, to a table by the kitchen door. Once they’d sat down across from each other, James wasted no time digging in.
The man waited a few minutes before striking up a conversation.
“Where are you from, boy?”
James swallowed his mouthful of food before answering. “Nuntian, outside the city.”
The man waited for James to finish another bite of his sandwich before continuing. “Where are your parents?”
“Dead, I think.” James shrugged when the man gave him a questioning look. “I don’t remember them. I lived with my aunt and uncle up til a few weeks ago, but I never liked them and they never liked me. I was just a waste of food and space, so when they decided I was big enough they kicked me out.” He began slurping on a spoonful of soup.
“Where are you staying now?” He watched the boy closely.
“Nowhere. I sleep wherever I can find a dry corner.”
The man was mildly surprised at how unconcerned the boy seemed. He couldn’t help but feel bad for the neglected child. “My name is Gareth, and my wife is Millie. We live upstairs, and we have a spare room, if you’d like to use it. It wouldn’t be free, as you’d have to do chores and earn your keep, but it’d be a nicer place to stay than out on the streets, not to mention much safer. I’ll leave that up to you, but we could use the help around the house, and we wouldn’t mind the company.”
By this point, James had paused mid-slurp to stare at the man, suspicious. When Gareth had finished his proposal, the boy slowly set the spoon down in the soup and leaned back in his chair, folding his small arms over his chest and staring down the man.
“What’s the catch, mister?”
Gareth shook his head. “The catch is the housework. As I said, you wouldn’t be getting a free room or a handout. You would have to work to earn your keep, and if you slack too much you’re going back out on the streets. But as long as you can pull your weight you can stay.”
“How can I work down here if I’m workin’ up there?”
“You wouldn’t be working all the time, just helping out Millie in the mornings and afternoons as needed, and helping out down here in the evenings or nights to earn your meals. You’ll have plenty of free time to do as you wish.”
James continued to stare the man down. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“I could ask the same to you. I only just met you and here I am offering you a job and a place to stay.” He paused a moment. “What do you say we make ourselves a deal?”
James looked confused for a moment, but quickly hid it beneath a business-like expression. “What kind of deal?”
“I’ll trust you to stay in my home and work for me, and not to destroy any of my property or go after me or my wife, and in return you trust me to feed you, give you a place to stay, and leave you to your privacy. That sound good to you?”
James thought it over, his eyes darting from the bowl of soup and empty plate in front of him to the man and back. His offer was enticing, but James was still unsure. “How about we give it a test?”
The man was amused at the boy’s seriousness and professional attitude. “What kind of test?”
“We’ll give it a week, then we’ll see if I wanna stay longer and keep workin’ for you.”
The man considered it and nodded. “Sounds reasonable. Now finish up and I will take you to the guest room.”
James wolfed down the rest of his soup and cleaned his dishes in the kitchen, then followed the man, Gareth, up the stairs to the apartment over the restaurant.
At the door at the top of the stairs, the man knocked before slowly opening the door.
“Millie? We have a new house guest.”
The man stepped in, and James cautiously followed him, looking around at the apartment. The walls were covered in shelves filled with books, journals, small statues, and trinkets. He recognized one of the small statues on the shelf over a small fireplace across the room as being the God and Goddess and felt a small bit of relief. Followers of the God and Goddess were usually very trustworthy and kind, as the God and Goddess were known to promote kindness to strangers as one of the most important qualities a person could possess.
In the middle of the room was a large rectangular coffee table, around which were a couch and three chairs. Getting out of one of the chairs was an older woman with long brown and silver hair pulled back in a bun wearing a long nightgown. The woman bustled over and looked down at James.
“And who might this young lad be?”
James looked at the man, who nodded. “Go on, boy. Tell her your name.”
She waved a hand at him. “I’m not a ma’am, dear boy, but if you feel the urge you can call me Millie or mum. Now, have you eaten?”
The boy nodded. “Y-yes. Just now.”
She nodded once. “Good. I’d hate to think my darling husband had lost his manners. Now come in, come in.” She waved him in and sat him in the middle of the couch before bustling into a connecting room. When she returned a moment later she set a tray down in the middle of the table with a tea kettle and three teacups. She quickly poured three glasses of tea and handed one to James and one to her husband who sat in the chair at the left end of the table, and kept the last one for herself as she sat in the chair across the table from James.
“Now, dear boy, tell me a bit about yourself! Where are you from? Where did my husband here pluck you from? What kind of things do you enjoy?”
James looked down into his teacup, trying to find words. This woman confused him, as he’d never met anyone quite so friendly in his entire life. “I…” He took a deep breath and tried again, his words pouring out all at once. “I’m from Nuntian, and I was raised by my aunt and uncle, but they didn’t care for me at all. So when they moved to the city a few weeks ago they kicked me out. Mister Gareth found me in the alley out back. As for what I enjoy, well, I don’t really know.”
The woman smiled kindly. “It’s ok to relax and speak more slowly, child.” James smiled nervously in return before she continued. “So your aunt and uncle didn’t want you and you ended up on the streets, correct?”
“And Gary here found you and said you could stay with us?”
“Not quite, ma’am - I mean mum. He said I could work and earn my keep. If I helped out here I could earn a place to stay, and if I helped out downstairs I could earn my meals.”
The woman shot her husband a disapproving look before turning back to James. “Lucky for you there isn’t much that needs done up here. Do you know how to dust? Or sweep? Or clean up dishes?”
James nodded once more and Millie smiled in return.
“You should have no problem keeping up with the chores, then, dear boy. Now, you must be exhausted.”
“I am kind of tired, mum.”
“Then let me show you to your new room.”
The woman stood and placed her cup of tea back on the tray. James did the same and followed her down a hallway to a closed door. When the woman opened it, he couldn’t help but feel amazed. On the wall to the left of the door was a large writing desk with its own lamp. On the left wall was a large bed with dark blue covers and more pillows than he’d ever seen on a single bed in his entire life. Along the back wall were three large windows with curtains and shades for each one. The right wall held floor-to-ceiling shelves over most of it, each one filled to bursting with books. He’d never seen such an incredible bedroom in all of his life.
And now it was his.
Millie smiled and watched the boy’s eyes grow wide as he stepped in. She knew he’d probably never been given his own furnished bedroom, by the sounds of his aunt and uncle. Once he’d stepped in and looked around, she stood in the doorway and looked him over.
“Tomorrow we’ll get you all cleaned up and I’ll make sure we get you some new clothes. You can’t wear the same ratty clothes every day. Sound good?”
The boy nodded. “Y-yes, mum. But… is this really where I get to stay?”
She chuckled. “Of course, dear boy. This room is all yours now. If you don’t want all of these books, we can find other places in the house for them. If you want different sheets we can find new ones while we are out tomorrow. The desk, bed, and everything else in here belongs to you as long as you live with us. You also get free reign of the house, as long as you don’t go destroying anything or taking anything without asking Gary or me first.”
James walked over to the bookshelf and began scanning the titles. “What are these about?”
Millie stepped in and stood next to James. “A lot of them are great adventure stories, and some of them are history texts.”
The boy pulled one down off of the shelf. “How do you know which is which?”
“That one is a story. You can tell based on the title.”
He looked up at her. “What’s this one’s title?”
The woman felt a sudden pang of pity for the boy, and her voice fell. “You were never taught to read, were you?”
He shook his head.
“Tomorrow is our shopping day, so the day after we will get right to work teaching you your letters. Sound like fun?”
He scrunched his face up. “Sounds like more work.”
“Hardly,” Millie replied with a laugh. “It will be fun, I promise. And it won’t take more than a couple of weeks for you to be able to read these books all on your own. Then you can read these great stories for yourself.”
“It better be fun,” he half-grumbled, eliciting another soft chuckle from the woman. James replaced the book and walked over to look out the window. From where he stood he could see the street below him, lit by the occasional lamp, and a lone figure hurrying up the street out of the rain beginning to fall from the sky. James found himself silently thankful that he was no longer out in the wet weather.
The boy turned away from the window and ran across the room, then leapt up into the bed, nearly disappearing into the covers and pillows with a childlike laugh. When he sat up, he stared at Millie, a broad grin across his expression. “This is the most comfiest bed I’ve ever been in. And there’s so many pillows!”
Millie laughed. “If you don’t want so many pillows we can put them in the hall closet. Otherwise, you are welcome to make use of them.” She walked over to stand in the doorway again. “Is there anything you need tonight?”
The boy shook his head. “No, but…” James hopped off of the bed and ran over to wrap his arms around the woman’s waist. “Thank you, mum.”
The woman looked over and caught her husband’s eye down the hall, and they exchanged a smile.