Cuff II: Chapter 1
“I have big plans.”
“I’m sure you do. Now get back to chopping.”
The apprenticing boy looked down at the cleave in his hand and the dead animal sprawled out before him, weighing his options.
“Yes, sir,” he decided, returning to his work.
“And stop talking so much for fuck’s sake. Givin’ me a headache.”
The apprentice nodded silently. Keeping his mouth shut almost physically hurt. There were too many interesting things to be said.
The air was hot and sticky, hanging in place like an executed criminal. It was about mid-day in the city of Kailin, and the shade from a small tent was the only relief from the sun. Crowds bustled around the marketplace, feasting their eyes on goods of all sorts, occasionally pulling out pouches of coins or bartering. Clothing, hats, chainmail, spices, fruits, knives, painted art, wooden decorations, jewelry– patrons found themselves utterly immersed in a massive world of products to purchase. The Kailin City marketplace was known throughout the world; even in the faraway Lands of Scindem, tales were told of the marketplace’s enormity and abundance. Yet, in this paradise of goods, not one person stood before the butcher’s tent. The only customers were flies, buzzing to and fro, dipping their dirty legs into each fresh cut of meat. And flies had no coin to spend.
“Maybe this damn smell is the problem.” The butcher was a large, burly man with strikingly orange hair and a fierce, aggressive demeanor about him. From afar, he had the look and expression of a man with his head on fire. He sniffed loudly, inhaling all the familiar dead animal scents. “Smells like shit in here.”
The man looked outside at the massive crowd, which seemed to be repelled from their tent as if by a magical force field. He stroked his fiery beard contemplatively, then turned around.
“Well that doesn’t mean stop working, you little shit!” The butcher yelled at his apprentice. Chopping sounds of metal on wood commenced as the boy returned to his efforts, slicing up pigmeat on a bloody table.
The work was not glamorous. It also was not enjoyable, well-paid, or particularly good experience. Yet, this boy still wanted to apprentice for this butcher, with this distinct lack of success. Any work was better than no work, after all, and he had exhausted many of the other various apprenticing opportunities in the marketplace.
Suddenly, the chopping sounds stopped again. The butcher turned around impatiently.
The apprentice had a nervous expression frozen on his face. He was not chopping the meat, but instead staring out at the noisy crowd.
His name was Vin Cullur, and he had more ideas than anyone else in the world. It almost didn’t matter that nobody listened to most of them.
His skin was olive and his hair was squiggly and dark, like wet seaweed. He wore old, unwashed clothing over his skinny figure, and sported mild acne on his cheeks. At this very instant, his face was twisted into an expression of careful observation, deep thought, and a blatant disregard for his master’s orders.
“Sir, the smell isn’t the problem,” The boy blurted out, continuing to stare out at the bustling people. His lips truly could not contain his thoughts.
The butcher’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the boy, ready to find something else worth yelling about. He loved getting angry. It was his most beloved hobby, Vin reckoned.
“It’s a butchers’ tent. It’s supposed to smell bad,” Vin thought aloud.
A fly landed on the butcher’s forehead, then immediately buzzed off, presumably because a popping vein startled it.
“Boy, I know what I–”
“Your prices are too high, sir.” Vin finally looked away from the crowd, making confident eye contact with his master instead.
Sometimes, however, the butcher didn’t even have to search to find a reason to yell at him. The boy often handed him easy, unconditional infuriation.
The butcher slowly strutted into the back of the tent toward him, keeping eye contact all the while, and put both of his hands on the table, squishing his sausage fingers into the blood and grease coating it. He must have been savoring this primal display. The boy stepped back very slightly, but did not look scared.
Chunks of fat and meat mushed between his huge fingers with a disgusting squelch sound.
“Vin, are you telling me I’m running my whole fucking business wrong? How long– exactly– have you been in the prestigious field of butcher apprenticing?”
“Nine days, sir, but–”
“And do you plan on making it to double digits?”
Vin looked down at the butcher’s gross, meat-covered fingers, then back up at the fiery man.
“Well, sir, it’s just that in those nine days we’ve only made about as many sales.”
The butcher leaned in menacingly. “Ten sales, so far, boy.” His teeth snarled like the mouth of a mad dog. “I keep a ledger.”
“Sir, that leg of lamb you sold yesterday hardly counted, it was really too old to still be in our inventory anyway and you sold it for much less than–”
Suddenly both the butcher and Vin froze as someone appeared in their peripheral visions. They spun toward the sound simultaneously. The butcher began rapidly wiping the blood and fat from his fingers onto his giant, dirty apron, then adopted a painfully forced smile.
“Oh! Hello there, ma’am,” the butcher raised his voice about two octaves to a fake sing-songy timbre that clearly did not match his giant, blazing demeanor.
An elegantly dressed woman stood in front of the tent. Perhaps she was the only person in this city capable of moving through the meat-scented force field. Or perhaps she was just lost. Vin kept his head down and obediently continued cutting up a wild hog.
“You look like a woman of fine tastes– may I interest you in Kailin City’s finest game meats?” The butcher asked daintily, gesturing to the grotesque collection of hanging meats, dripping with blood and grease and flies.
The woman smiled the kind of wry smile that only a wealthy person could. The butcher was about to score a big sale; he could feel it in the hot, stagnant air.
“Mmm, yes. How much for four quails?” The woman asked in a sweet voice, brushing an elegant braid of golden hair onto her back.
“Erm, well, ma’am, we don’t sell quail.”
She cocked her head slightly.
“Venison, hog, squirrel, rabbit, iguana, roo, pheasant, and duck,” the butcher recited confidently. “Fresh caught, all of ‘em.”
The woman paused in careful observation, taking notice of each of the dead animals in view.
“Mmm. Well then,” she continued, as though the price mattered to her, “How much for two ducks?”
“Nine silver pieces each, ma’am. Boy,” he turned back to Vin, “Ready some ducks.”
“Yes, sir,” Vin answered compliantly, reaching for some meat hanging by the back. His white bracelet gleamed brilliantly in the light.
The butcher was nearly salivating with anticipation.
“Oh, no need,” the woman replied. “Thank you though. Have a nice day, you two.”
A stunned silence proceeded for an instant. The butcher watched in disbelief as she exited the tent. She could afford the price, and she wanted the ducks. More importantly, he and Vin needed the money. What was the problem?
“Wait!” The butcher called back desperately. “Eight silver pieces each!” He paused for a moment, but still did not manage to filter out his next exclamation. “You have that kind of money, look at you! You could buy out the whole store! Is it the smell? Come on!”
The woman looked back over her shawled shoulder, but did not appear to be nearly as offended as she probably should have.
“No, thank you. Have a nice day, sir.” She looked into the back of the shop, at Vin. “And you too, boy. Nice bracelet,” she said with that same wry smile. She then exited the force field and melted back into the bustling crowd.
“Oh, fuck you!” The butcher shouted into the crowd, to no effect. “Fuck.” He stormed back into the tent.
Silence came over the two of them. Vin had a feeling he would be getting paid less than usual. Nothing at all, perhaps. They were constantly losing money: buying big and selling too little.
“She liked your stupid jewelry,” the butcher said defeatedly, taking long, calming pauses between his thoughts. “Could have sold that to her.”
Vin stayed silent, putting his hand gingerly to the snow-white cuff around his wrist. He wouldn’t have sold it anyway.
The butcher sat down.
“Vin, I need to make a living.”
The boy looked up, brushing his sweaty hair out of his face with the back of his hand. It left a streak of animal blood on his forehead, and his hair fell back in front of his eyes immediately.
“My wife and kids depend on it,” the man grumbled. “I need to. My father could make money being a butcher. His father, too.”
This was the most humanized Vin had ever seen his master– vulnerable, insecure, and upset about his work. He was typically an unbreakable facade of anger and pseudo-professionalism.
“Sir…” Vin did not want to upset the man further, but his mouth apparently did not care. “It’s the price. Like I said. You charge too much.”
“No, no, no,” he replied with unusual placidity. “It can’t be the price. Did you see her? Did you see her clothing?”
“Right, but there’s butchers down the street selling duck for four. And they’ll even roast it for you. Most people aren’t going to spend nine silvers here. Not unless you market it like a luxury butchery, but…” Vin trailed off, looking at the stomach-churning, unsanitary conditions all around him. If this was supposed to evoke a sense of luxury, some changes would certainly have to be made.
“So what do you suppose I do, wise apprentice?” The butcher spit his sarcasm at Vin like melon seeds before returning to a depressed demeanor. “If I charge any less, I’d be losing coin. I… I need this.”
“Why can’t you charge less?” Vin asked with genuine curiosity.
“Boy, let me tell you something about the real world.”
Vin put his cleave down on the table and massaged his tired wrist.
“Everyone wants your money,” the butcher continued, “And everyone gets some of your money, too. Do you think I want to charge nine silver pieces for a duck?”
“I… actually, yes–”
“No,” he answered his own question, ignoring his apprentice. “I’d charge less if I could. But some of that money goes to using this tent. And some of it goes to the emperor, as taxes. And a lot of it goes to the hunters who actually catch the meat for us.”
“But… the hunters have to pay for bows and arrows and rope, and the bow makers and arrow makers and rope makers have their own expenses,” Vin replied, in his rapid-fire voice, “And taxes go to keeping peace in the realm. And the landlord here has to answer to the royal financers. And… and so on. Everyone has their price for a reason.”
The butcher defeatedly gestured to the environment surrounding them, rotting like the intestines of the dead. “And this is what we get. The butchers.”
Vin did not respond.
With a large huff, the butcher collapsed into his squeaky wooden chair. Vin picked up the cleave again and resumed his meat-chopping. Specifically, he had a large piece of fat to remove from a hog.
The ambient sounds of the crowd outside was somewhat soothing. A few minutes passed, composed of equal parts tranquility and lard.
“Say, boy, why did you want to apprentice for me in the first place? This ain’t exactly luxurious. And you’re no butcher by trade. You don’t even know your daddy, do you?”
“Well then why don’t you work for him?”
“He doesn’t work, sir.”
“Ah,” the butcher answered, choosing his words carefully. “A lazy drain on society. I know the type. I had uncles begging my father for money when I was a kid. Waste of air, those men.”
Vin said nothing.
“So, boy, why butchering? You could have chosen anything.”
“I’ve done a lot of different work before,” Vin replied. “And I just want a place to start.”
The butcher laughed. “A place to start chopping dead animals for the rest of your life, I suppose.”
“No. I’m not a butcher.”
He chuckled heartily. “No, no. Of course not. You’re a butcher’s apprentice!”
“Well, what then? You have grand dreams of striking it rich and buying big homes for all of your poor friends?”
“That would be nice,” he admitted. “But I just want to make a difference.”
“You don’t think you make a difference now?”
Vin kept chopping the dead animals in front of him. It sure did not feel like he made a difference.
“Well,” said the butcher, imparting some rare wisdom. “There’s honor in being a butcher. You feed someone. You make someone’s day better.”
“That’s true,” replied Vin.
“But that ain’t how you want to live.”
“It ain’t really how I want to live, neither.”
Vin tossed the severed hog fat into a bucket and pushed the rest of the pink meat onto one side of the large butchering table. Then, beginning his next task, he walked to the back of the tent, pulled a dead pheasant out of a container, and began defeathering it on the same blood-soaked table.
“Maybe I want to be a sailor,” Vin declared. “I like watching the ships come and go at the docks. I like how, every day at sea, sailors are in a new place. Even common trade routes must be such an adventure.”
“You ever even been on a boat?”
“I’m sure it ain’t be all you dream it is. Vomit and smoking-plants, all of it. Plus, ain’t no sailor making enough to pull his friends outta the gutter. Not unless you’re a, I dunno, a captain or something.”
Vin did not reply. He flipped the wild bird over and continued his work.
“I ain’t trying to crush your dreams, necessarily,” the man said gruffly. “I just hope you realize that life ain’t gonna be good, or easy.”
“Maybe not easy,” Vin replied.
“Or good,” the fiery man repeated, driving home his pessimistic point. “You’ll spend most of your days wakin’ up to go to some job you hate just to put food on the table. Yer wife yells at you, yer kid cries, yer childhood friends grow apart, people die.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
“I live it, boy. You’re young and optimistic still.”
“Well, I won’t ever be like you.”
“Yeah, alright. You think you’ll be a sailor anytime soon?”
“And even then, how you gonna strike it rich, exactly?”
“I… don’t know.” Even a seemingly pleasant conversation with this fiery man seemed to turn hostile eventually. Vin felt himself getting annoyed again.
The man laughed and stood up from his chair, seemingly satisfied with wallowing in cynicism. “Thought so. You ain’t pulling anybody outta nothing, not even yourself. You ain’t getting coin.”
“You think you’re doing any better?” Vin asked. He was riled up now. There was no stopping this. He was tired of holding everything back from his negative, angry master.
The butcher shrugged. “No. With all the coin I’m paying these hunters for meat that I’ll never sell, we’ll both be outta business soon enough.”
“Sir,” Vin looked disgruntled, “If the coin going to hunters is being spent on their bows, and the coin going to bow makers is being spent on wood, and the coin going to lumberjacks is being spent on axes, who’s really making a profit here?”
“By the gods! I should’ve been a fuckin’ axe-maker!”
“No! Sir, no one down here is making any real money! The royal family,” Vin gestured outside the tent, at the castle looming over the market square, engulfing every tent in its shadow. “They’re the ones making the money! They get a cut of everyone’s trade!”
The butcher’s face grew dark and serious. “You shouldn’t speak ill of the emperor, boy.”
“You wanna talk about making it out of ‘the gutter’? We’re trapped in a cycle, sir. The emperor and the royal family get the fruits of our labor, and we’re fed the scraps–”
“Boy,” he raised his voice threateningly.
People from the market outside started looking in curiously.
“It’s wrong, sir! We’re being used by the royal family– by the emperor. We’re not even seen as people to them! You want to tell me what I can and can’t–”
The raised voices attracted even more wandering eyes from outside. Drama was always an attraction at the Kailin City market. A fight breaking out never seemed much out of the ordinary. As such, it was a sort of show that a shopper could come to expect as free entertainment with their purchases.
“Sir! Look around!” Vin was yelling by now. “Why do you think you don’t see them out here, working? They’re the real drains on society! They’re the real lazy–”
“Agh!” The butcher angrily put his meaty fists under the bloody table and flipped it over, sending animal chunks flying across the tent. Vin, shocked, jumped backward, but slipped on bits of fat on the ground and collapsed into the back of the tent, bruising his tailbone. The table hit the ground with a loud thud. Carcasses toppled into all areas of the butchering tent, with discombobulated flies buzzing after them. A number of market-goers were fully captivated by now, blatantly staring in, mesmerized by the action. A few gasps were audible, even over the ambient noisiness of the area.
“Listen to me, boy.” The butcher violently pointed his fat finger right toward Vin’s face. “You do not speak ill of the emperor or the royal family under my tent. Is that understood?”
Vin stood back up, rubbing the part of his spine that had hit the ground.
“Is that understood?”
The butcher glared, eyes dripping with wrath, lips twisted back into a doglike snarl. He was ready to hunt his prey.
“Sir, I respect you wanting to follow the rules. But if we can’t talk about the problems of the world, how are we going to fix them?”
“Boy, I’m a butcher, not a philosopher. If you’d prefer to be a philosopher, you can get the fuck out of my sight and find yourself a philosophy master.”
Vin did not move.
“Did you hear me?” Rage was building up inside of the butcher again, quickly bubbling to the top.
“I would rather be a butcher, sir.”
“Then fix this mess and shut up, you ungrateful shit.”
Vin obeyed. He cleaned up the meats splattered on the floor– what a waste– and then struggled to right the bloody table. It was very heavy. The people outside stopped staring and the crowd turned back to its typical, flowing movement, with citizens going from one tent to the next, buying armfuls of goods.
Vin took a breath. He did not feel at fault. The butcher was a sad old man, and he could hardly be faulted for wanting to take his anger out on a happy young boy.
“You know they imprison treasonous talkers like yourself,” the fiery man said. “You’re lucky you ain’t getting thrown in a dungeon right now. You might not like it, but I’m saving you.”
Vin said nothing as he finished cleaning up the mess from his master’s outburst.
“I might as well have just pulled you out of a cell, boy. Be grateful.”
Somehow, it was difficult to feel gratefulness toward this man.
“They burned fifteen men alive last week,” the butcher continued. “You see that? Smart men, too. Men who could read, and wrote books, and contributed to society, and had families. They wrote some bad things about the royal family, and now they’re ash. Just like their books.” The butcher peered out the tent suspiciously. “You keep saying things like that, boy, and you sure won’t be treated any nicer, I promise you.”
A tense silence hung overhead as Vin resumed his work. He put his defeathered pheasant back onto the work table– now, covered in dirt– and used a small knife to slice into it. Sliding the knife along the bones, he pulled the legs and wings off and put them with the other edible meats. The lard bucket had been knocked over in the scuffle, so Vin just tossed the excess fat into a disgusting pile in the back corner of the tent, where the most gluttonous flies in Kailin City made their feast. He would deal with it later.
Whether he wanted to admit it or not, Vin had gotten much better at butchering meat in his brief time with this fiery man. His cuts no longer looked mangled, and he was almost as fast at it as the butcher himself.
Yet, proficiency in cutting meat was among the last reasons Vin had become a butcher’s apprentice in the first place. He was far too ambitious to consider bird-deboning an important skill in his life trajectory.
“That woman was wearing more money than you’ll ever have,” Vin split the silence viciously, recalling the wealthy customer from earlier today.
“Or you,” the butcher countered, after a long, dangerous pause. “Stupid little shit. You think you’re going to work your way up from butchering apprentice to emperor, don’t you?”
The butcher laughed. “I thought that as a boy too. I think we all did. But life ain’t that easy. It kicks you down and keeps you a butcher, and you’d better damn well learn to like it. Because you’ll never be anything more.”
Finally, the butcher truly, deeply struck a nerve with Vin.
“I’ll be more than you can possibly imagine, Kraz,” Vin said frustratedly, trying his best to believe himself.
“What did you call me?”
“Kraz,” Vin annunciated the butcher’s family name like it was a venom on the back of his teeth.
“You call me ‘sir,’ boy.”
Vin did not speak for a moment, considering his choice of words more carefully than usual. “Yes, Kraz.”