Hatter was up early the next morning. He usually was. Early bird gets the worm, baits his hook with it, and has fish for breakfast.
Or was it the worm that tricked the bird into catching the fish?
Or was it the early fish that had the bird over for tea, because worms were disgusting, and not something any sane creature should enjoy eating?
The point was, he liked mornings.
And this morning, he had a new oyster. The excitement reminded him of getting his first puppy. Or at least, he would have felt this way if he had ever been given a puppy. Not that he'd ever been given one, but that was beside the point.
He sorted impatiently through a stack of transactions in his office. Boring, this. Just how late was she going to sleep? Did oysters need a lot of sleep? He hadn't considered that. He didn't need much at all, but she might be a different story.
A high-pitched scream from somewhere in the shop jerked him abruptly out of his musings. A door slammed, and footsteps scurried down the hallway. His office door flew open, and a pudgy little man waddled in, gesturing frantically. Hatter hopped to his feet. "Dormie, what the - "
"Hatter, oyster! In the shop!" Dormie squeaked.
Alice made her entrance, eyes flashing, and Dormie scrambled to get behind Hatter. Alice spotted him and started to storm after him. Hatter stepped forward and held up his hands, blocking her path. "Whoa, hold on. What's the fuss, hmm?"
Her breath hissed through her teeth. "He tried to throw me out the window!"
Hatter made a face and stepped out from between them. "Dormie?" He glanced at his assistant, who had turned an unattractive shade of yellow, then back at her. "You sure?"
She folded her arms and nodded. "He told one of those thugs out there to toss me off the ledge. I am damn well not going to be thrown off a ledge my first day on the job."
Hatter narrowed his eyes. "What thugs, Dormie?"
The little man shrugged apologetically. "A few friends of mine, Hatter. Nothing to worry about, nothing at all."
He was using his salesman voice, which meant it was most definitely something to worry about. Hatter sighed. "Right, I want to talk to you later. For now, off you go. Not a word about the oyster." Dormie scurried off. "Take your mates with you!" Hatter called after him.
He turned to the oyster – the Alice – and flashed her a reassuring smile. "He's a bit nuts. Sleep well?"
"Yes." She took a step back, hesitated, then added, "Thanks."
"Not a problem. Right, Alice, let's go see what you'll be doing."
He took her to the far side of the trading floor. The room was empty and silent, the shop not having opened yet. It was eerie to Alice after the pandemonium of the day before.
On this end of the floor, there were more tables on blocks, clustered in groups near a circular metal counter. A matching counter hung from the ceiling, directly above the lower one. The three-foot gap between these was barred with iron like a cell, with a pair of small hinged doors that could be opened to slide tea out to customers. The only way into the room behind the counter was through a sturdy steel door. After all this time running the shop, Hatter still didn't know how the ceiling supported the contraption.
He hadn't been the one to put it there, but he suspected that his shop might have belonged to a gang a few decades back, which meant that the counter had served a less pleasant function than it did now. But it was impossible to say for certain, and he preferred not to dwell on it.
Hatter could feel Alice's curious stare as he unlocked and opened the counter door.
It was all shelves inside, some with bottles, some with cups, and some with empty slots waiting to be filled. A strongbox rested on the floor beside a case of empty bottles. Hatter nudged it with his toe. "This is stapled to the floor and locked shut."
He gestured to the shelves. "The teas are stacked by price and quality. Always ask for a higher price than the one a bottle's tagged for. Most of them will be too desperate to barter down. Got it?"
"Good. There's a shotgun under the counter. I've never had to use it, but it's there if you need it. I'll show you how it works later." He pulled a sheave of papers from a rack stapled beneath the counter. "All sales get written up here. It's a simple scratch system — you just have to add things up. Easy. You can count, right?" He kept his face perfectly straight.
She smirked a little. "Yes, I can count. Probably higher than you can."
"Ooh, I've hired a brain. Peachy."
She scowled and grabbed the papers from him. "What'll I do about my Glow?"
"What?" He was watching her read the page, noting how long it took her to sound out the words to herself. She hadn't been kidding about the whole reading thing.
She looked up. "My Glow. On my arm."
Her Glow was very much visible, snaking out as it was from underneath her dirty dress. "Can't have the tea-heads seeing that, can we?" He pursed his lips. "You can borrow a jacket. That should do the trick."
He showed her the different teas and was pleased to see that she already knew most of them. After setting her straight on the distinction between Melancholy and Sadness, he taught her how to write up sales and mark in bids.
His mind wasn't really on this, since it was already too busy wondering precisely what he had signed up for. According to accepted rumor, oysters were incapable of complex reasoning because their emotions were so strong. They were also gullible. And she, Alice, was attractive. Too attractive to be around tea-heads? Maybe tending the counter wasn't such a good job for her.
"So is this it?" She was leaning against the doorframe, waiting.
He blinked. "Yes. Well, no. Do me a favor, all right?"
She made a gesture of assent.
"Keep your face calm and don't talk much. Better yet, pretend you can't speak at all. Any half-wit will notice the difference between you and one of us if you speak, Glow or not."
She set her jaw. "What if there's a problem? I don't trust the little rat guy."
"Dormie's handled, and if his friends are who I think they are, they'll keep their mouths closed." He held the steel door open for her and locked it behind them. "I'll stay down here until you get the hang of things. How does that sound?"
She frowned. "I don't know."
"What? You still don't trust me?"
"Of course I don't. I've known you for less than a day! How do I know this isn't some kind of stupid trick?"
Her eyes were flashing again, much to Hatter's amusement. Watching the oyster get angry was far more pleasurable than it ought to have been, and he privately wondered if he had some previously-unrealized sadistic streak.
Her concerns were valid, he knew – not that he had a definitive way to answer them. I'm sorry you've been taken advantage of your whole life, and that the idea of a paying job and a decent boss is so inconceivable to you. Oh, and while it's on me mind, I'm also sorry that my assistant is a human rat and smells bad.
But all he said was, "I'm giving you a chance. Give me one, all right?" He extended his hand and waited for her to take it.
She deliberated, and then gave it a tentative shake. "Don't lie to me." It was more of a plea than a command.
He met her eyes. "I won't."
They both dropped the subject after that, moving to the more neutral territory of how the floor ought to be swept. Then he went out, coming back a few minutes later with a faded burgundy coat. Alice accepted it, and thanked him for the second time that day.
She returned to work.
Hatter admired the coat on her. The color and the cut suited her, and he liked the way she settled so comfortably into it. It had been collateral from an unfortunate client some time ago, and he'd kept it around because…well, a fellow never knew. Here at least was a better use for it.
Her dress was quite dirty, wasn't it? How had she managed that so early in the day? It couldn't have been the sweeping.
You're staring at her, idiot. Get back to work.
He was halfway to the door when the answer occurred to him…of course her dress was dirty. It was the only one she owned! Hatter slapped a palm to his forehead and pivoted around. "Look, Alice, we need to go get you some clothes."
"I can't have me employees dressed in rags, right? Let's go find something. We'll be back before you know it."
She looked her dress over and frowned. "No, this is still good. I'll get some with my money later."
He rolled his eyes impatiently. "Are you doing that on purpose, trying to offend me?"
She shrugged, and Hatter briefly considered throwing his hat at her. Would it kill her to give a positive emotional response?
He sighed. "Look, it's costing me nothing I can't afford. It's me job to take care of you, so come on."
And that was that. She put the broom away, he locked the shop, and they were off.