Sweeping Changes by Mara Lynn Johnstone - Read Online
Sweeping Changes
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Summary

When the old street sweeper's memory deserts him, this smacks of magic, not a senior moment -- he's left with his broom and a reflection that talks back in a snarky voice. But when he sets out to learn more, he finds himself up against foreign invaders who take a dim view of his interference. One officer decides he’s in the way (and making her look bad), so she sends assassins after him directly. His fighting skills with the trusty broom won’t be enough to save him. But his memories are starting to trickle back, thanks in part to clues from that talking reflection. It turns out he was someone important. Someone with magic of his own. Someone who might just be able to stop the invasion, if he can keep himself alive and regain the rest of those memories in time.
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ISBN: 9781943612024
List price: $2.99
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Sweeping Changes - Mara Lynn Johnstone

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33

CHAPTER 1

He woke knowing only one thing: that the face staring back at him from the puddle’s reflection wasn’t his. He couldn’t say what about it seemed so wrong -- neither the pale complexion woven with wrinkles, the gray hair tied back behind his head, nor the faded blue eyes. But something definitely wasn’t right. He blinked and opened his mouth, baring teeth in good condition for someone so obviously old, and the reflection moved along with him. It seemed to be the face he was wearing at the moment, even if it didn’t really belong to him.

The old man looked up from the puddle and found himself half-laying on the ground, on a city street lined with flat paving stones and a thin layer of trash. The buildings were all stonework, built to last, looking almost like castle battlements. There were no windows. He sat up properly, finding no bruises worth mentioning, then he noticed the broom.

There was a distinct path through the leaves, fruit rinds, and animal droppings. He had apparently been cleaning the street before he’d been afflicted with whatever it was. Voices sounded distantly from a few streets over, but there was no one nearby to ask.

He got to his feet and resumed sweeping.

No point in just sitting around while he thought about it. Not when the street was so disgracefully dirty.

His thoughts didn’t come up with much. He found that his joints were sound and his back strong, and he handled the broom with a deftness that spoke of many years of practice. In no time he had swept up the remaining trash and brushed it into an opening to the sewer system, where water rushed by quietly below.

He found himself smiling with pride in the network of tunnels, as if he’d had a hand in building them. He probed the thought for more, but nothing surfaced. It felt like memories were teeming behind his eyes, but their way was blocked.

Frowning, he turned back to the place where he had woken. Nothing marked the area to show that anything strange had happened, but as he walked back to the puddle, he noticed something different about his reflection.

It spoke back to him.

=You done wandering in circles?= a voice echoed in his head, as the wrinkled face regarded him with a raised eyebrow. =Pull yourself together, kid; this is embarrassing.=

The old man straightened his posture and regarded the puddle. He wasn’t surprised that it was talking, and he wondered if he should be.

=That’s the stuff! Now stop looking so flaming senile, and use that brain of yours. Got anything identifying in your pockets?=

A quick search produced some creased paper money, a small metal contraption with many blades and tools folded up inside it, a stub of writing carbon wrapped in a handkerchief, and a handwritten note saying that he was owed a new pocket notebook of his choice when the shipment came in next Woodsday. This last was signed with what must be a shop name: City Essentials.

=Righto, a clue!= the other voice chortled. =Let’s start out by finding the nice lady who wrote that.=

You’re sure it was a woman? the man asked, feeling slow.

=Of course it was; look at those curly-cues. No self-respecting male over the age of ten writes that girly. Now c’mon, off with you!= The reflection urged him on, pointing toward the nearest intersection.

Will you be--?

=Oh, I’ll be popping up; can’t leave you alone to be a stupid-head by yourself. Onward! And stop talking to thin air; you look like a lunatic.=

The old man regarded his snickering reflection briefly before turning and stumping off toward the corner. He used his broom like a cane until the puddle behind him shouted that he looked like a geezer that way.

He didn’t dignify that with a response.

He just kept walking, looking for anything that jogged memories, and listening for sounds of life. This corner of the city was largely quiet at the moment. The height of the sun and the songs of hidden birds said that it was midmorning, a time when most cities were up and running.

Coming to a stop at the corner, the old man rested his broom handle against the ground and looked around at his options. This was another side street, with only lifeless buildings and the occasional potted plant. No people were visible, though he could hear plenty: off to the right there were voices raised in jovial conversation and shouted commands, along with various clanks and thuds of industry. To the left he heard no human voices, but many birds, and the rasping sound of stone being hewn with a metal blade.

Something about the last noise caught his attention, and he found himself turning in that direction. The metal sounded thin and whippy, not like a proper stoneworking tool. And this area didn’t look like it should house a workshop of that sort. Curiosity and a distant feeling of concern drew him toward the sound.

Then the rasping stopped, replaced by a pause and then a loud crack. Something heavy thudded to the ground, and the old man found himself running, alarm ringing through his mind.

He raced down the empty street, avoiding slick spots in the pavement and casting about for the source of the noises. The road let out into the remains of a winding public garden, mostly full of untrimmed hedges and bird nests. More rasping sounds and an instinct he couldn’t explain led him to the center of the maze.

There, hidden from view by overgrown trees and bushes, were three dark figures clustered around a statue missing its head.

The old man felt the desecration like a blow to the heart, and he didn’t stop to wonder why. He let out an inarticulate cry of rage and swung his broom at the nearest vandal.

The three people in shapeless clothes and concealing hats had heard him coming. His target managed to dodge the broom handle that would have dented his skull, jumping back while the other two produced knives and advanced without a word.

The old man noticed many things: they lacked the bluster of rowdy troublemakers; they didn’t run for it like delinquents caught in the act; they didn’t consult with each other before moving to surround him with deadly weapons; and they were dressed in a way that was calculated to disguise their features. He couldn’t say with his conscious mind why the destruction of this statue was important, but it obviously was. And his subconscious still cried out for blood.

He didn’t wait for them to make the first move. Before they could get close enough to reach him with a knife, he stepped toward the one on the left with the broom held up for a powerful swing, then he stopped in mid-motion and lunged in a stab to the midsection of the one on the right.

The man was caught off-guard, and the sturdy pole hit just below his ribcage. He crumpled to the ground gasping for breath while the other two vandals reassessed their opponent and attacked from two sides at once.

The old man spun the broom, sticking the bristled end in one attacker’s face then using it to sweep the feet out from under the other. The first attacker got over the indignity and slashed with his dagger, but the old man wasn’t there any more. He had jumped to the side, getting into position to bring the shaft of the broom down on that outstretched arm with bone-cracking fury.

The younger man cried out as his forearm shattered, but there was no more time to spend on him, not when the one on the ground had decided to throw his daggers instead. The first was supposed to take the old man in the shoulder, but he was still moving, and he saw the motion in time to dodge. The second knife didn’t even leave the vandal’s hand before the old man had leapt across the empty space to swing his broom handle with punishing force. A raised arm blunted some of the blow, cracking more bones yet still connecting with the man’s head hard enough to render him unconscious.

But the other vandal with a broken arm wasn’t ready to give up; he had crept forward with a second knife ready to plunge into the old man’s back.

He wasn’t fast enough.

The broom handle knocked his hand to the side, and before he could bring it back into a dangerous position, the old man had lunged to jam an elbow into his ribs and stomp on the ankle of his forward foot.

The ankle broke with a crunch; the man crumpled with wide eyes and a gurgle of pain. He stayed down this time.

A look around told the old man that the fight was over. One vandal was unconscious with a bruised skull and a broken arm, the second had two broken limbs and some bruises as well -- he looked to be slipping into shock -- and the third was still gasping, but appeared to be recovering from the blow to the solar plexus.

The clack of the broom handle on the paving stones in front of him caused this vandal to look up in startlement. The old man stood before him, staring down with an expression that made the vandal start pleading for mercy.

Please let me go, I won’t --

Why did you do that? the old man interrupted, jabbing a finger at the headless statue. He couldn’t bring himself to look at it without getting emotional.

I’m sorry, please --

Why? he asked again, bending forward. Give me a reason!

We… It was a dare. Jimmel said--

"It was not a dare. He was certain. If you three were dared to do this, you would have cut and run the moment someone saw you at it. You aren’t trapped; there are other ways out of here. This is a maze! You could have split up, and I might not have caught any of you. But no. He pointed the broom haft at the man. You all drew knives on me without a word. This was planned. Now tell me why you did it, and whose idea it was."

But the injured vandal wouldn’t say, first insisting that they were just youths having some fun, and then clamming up entirely when the old man pointed out the strands of silver in the hair of the vandal with the most injuries. And despite this man’s careful speech, occasional syllables sounded oddly accented. But he wouldn’t say anything about that either.

Short of hurting him further, it looked like there would be no getting answers out of this one. After a moment of thought, the old man decided that there was nothing for it; he’d have to haul one of the troublemakers with him in search of lawkeepers. He hoped it would be a short search.

Since the one vandal who was still conscious would not be running off on him anytime soon -- the man could still barely breathe -- this would be the one to bring along. Telling him sternly to stay where he was, the old man steeled himself and walked over the desecrated statue. He’d seen a bag of supplies at its base that might hold rope.

The bag lay next to the statue’s fallen head. Taking a deep breath, the old man grasped the head and turned it so he could see the face.

He didn’t recognize it, but the back of his mind screamed at him that he should. It was a young man, with a narrow-bridged nose and artful swirls of hair, looking into the distance with a faint smile that said he approved of what he saw. When this garden had been tended and beautiful, the statue must have looked grand.

Full of frustrated sadness, the old man set the head at the foot of the statue, facing forward, then turned to dig through the bag of supplies. It did contain rope, as well as a disturbing variety of cutting tools and more than a few other weapons. These were more the kind of thing that a professional assassin might carry than something a delinquent would have.

Taking a length of rope and leaving the rest, the old man returned to the injured vandal and tied his hands behind his back. The vandal didn’t protest, even when the old man took off his concealing floppy hat and bared his unremarkable face for all the world to see.

At the thought that some wandering child might find the bag of dangerous things, the old man returned to the statue and raised the bag to hang from one of the statue’s outstretched arms, well above the height that a child could reach. It was the best he could do.

Leaving the beheaded statue guarding the weapons and the unconscious vandals, the old man hauled his captive up and back out onto the street.

CHAPTER 2

The street outside of the garden led in the direction of a busier-sounding part of town. When they finally reached a main road, city traffic flowed everywhere in a whirl of activity. People strode to and fro in daytime finery, with an emphasis on buttoned vests and tall hats for the men, while the women tended toward either frilly dresses or practical work pants. The pedestrians kept to the sidewalks, leaving the center of the road to the self-propelling carriages that wheeled along at a modest pace. Signs and open doors lined the street, and shop fronts were everywhere.

One name caught his eye: City Essentials. It was emblazoned on a gold-painted sign over a window crammed with gadgets for sale, and this was undoubtedly the source of the note in his pocket. The old man urged his captive forward through the bustle, holding the rope with one hand and the broom in the other. He jabbed the vandal with it when the man dragged his feet. People gave them some odd looks, but no one said anything as they entered the shop.

It was a big place, with shelves in all directions full of things the average city dweller might need. The old man walked past sun hats, rain coats, pocket watches, and children’s toys on the way toward the counter. He pulled up short when he spotted a stand of maps. A quick glance at their titles told him that he was in Wayralia, probably in the kingdom’s capitol city. He was considering freeing a hand to pick one out when a cheerful greeting pulled his attention to the middle-aged woman behind the counter.

Hello, Hess! Didn’t think we’d see you until Woodsday. Who’s this? Her eyebrows raised when she saw that the other man’s hands were tied behind his back. What’s going on? she asked in a quieter tone with a glance at the other people browsing the store.

This is a criminal, Hess said, taking careful stock of everything she’d said, both out loud and unintentionally. I’m taking him to the lawkeepers, and I’m afraid I’ve lost my way. Could you point me to the nearest guard outpost?

The woman couldn’t have looked more surprised. "You’ve lost your way? Is the world ending? She half-smiled like she hoped it was a joke. Who will give the rest of us directions now?"

Hess gave her an answering ghost of a smile. Maybe I’m getting old, he admitted.

You? Never!

…But I have been having a bit of memory troubles today.

The vandal looked at him sharply as he said that, a fact that did not escape his notice. But the woman was talking, so he kept an eye on his captive while he listened to her.

Well, I hope you’ll be all right! she was saying. My Grandpa started forgetting things when he was up in years, but Gram said it was because he didn’t do enough thinking to exercise his brain. You’re always thinking, so here’s hoping it clears up on its own!

Hess agreed that that would be preferable, and the woman whose name he pretended to know gave him directions to the nearest guardhouse. She ended up giving him a city map too, and wouldn’t hear of letting him pay for it.

With all you do around here, you’ve more than earned it, she assured him. Let us know if you need anything else, okay? He agreed, and she wished him well. Good luck in dealing with this guy! What did he do, anyway? she asked quietly.

Beheaded a statue.

Beheaded… she mouthed the rest with a horrified expression, then pointed in the direction they had come from. "That statue? At his nod, her face filled first with sympathy, then anger. Oh, Hess! The bastard! The turned to the vandal. You bastard!"

He has two accomplices unconscious by the statue, Hess put in. I could only take one with me; I plan on sending the guards back for the others.

Her face hardened. I’ll see that they don’t go anywhere. You hurry on to the guards! She waved him out the door, then turned to shout at the other shop workers to gather family members and weapons.

Hess guided his captive out of the shop, feeling a little better now that he had a name and friends. He’d been reluctant to let on just how much he didn’t know, but something told him he was on the right track to regaining it.

A familiar reflection nodded at him from store windows as he passed. It didn’t say anything this time, but gestured for him to hurry. He did. The guardpost was supposed to be nearby.

But near or not, the streets were laid out in labyrinthine fashion, and he had to consult the map more than once. The vandal had resumed breathing normally some time ago, and though he still walked with a bit of a limp, Hess was relatively sure that the man was faking it. He kept a close watch on him, only letting down his guard once when a gust of wind threatened to pull the map away.

But once was all it took for the man to yank the rope from Hess and take off in a mad dash through the crowd.

Hess swore, running after him and shouting the universally recognized Stop! Thief! Everyone in the near vicinity looked over at the commotion, and a couple of people tried to trip the man or grab the trailing rope, but he was too fast. He disappeared around a corner with Hess hurrying after, then he suddenly came scrambling past in the other direction, with two armored city guards hot on his trail. Hess was too startled to catch the man himself, and he stood out of the way of the guards as they passed.

He took up the chase again, then found a third guard running beside him to ask what the man had done.

Vandalism and attempted murder, Hess puffed. The guard nodded and took off, fast outpacing the older man while shouting to his comrades that they should shoot the criminal in the leg if he didn’t stop. Hess shoved the crumpled map into his pocket and