Liam folded his arms, jacket straining at the seams. “I’m sorry, Barty, but that’s the way of it. We’re going to have to let you go.”
“Don’t you ‘Barty’ me. If you’re going to insult me, damned well use my name,” Bart said. He put his hands on his hips, above his leather tool-belt. Around them, the building site was busy, the sounds of chatter rising over the sound of hammers on brick and the scrape of shovels.
“Bart… don’t make it like this,” Liam said, shaking his head. “You know as well as I do that your work’s not been as good as it could be these last weeks. I’ve gotta run a business here, you know that.”
“If this is about the lime mortar, you know it was an accident. It could have happened to anyone-”
“You let it harden and wasted the whole batch,” Liam said.
“This is about hiring more goddamned animals, isn’t it?” Bart gestured at the site around them. “Just because they can carry more than any three of us, or they’re natural builders.” He sneered as he spat the words out. “Humans built this city, and built those animals.”
“You know it’s not that,” Liam said, “but honestly that attitude isn’t helping you. There are jobs for humans and jobs for animals; we don’t discriminate.” He frowned. “I’m sorry, friend.”
Bart lurched forward, sending Liam stumbling back. “I’m not your bloody friend.”
The workers around them ground to a halt, but all Bart could see were Liam’s eyes, wide and staring.
“Bart… you need to put the hammer down, Bart,” the big man said, voice tremulous.
The anger soaked away almost as soon as it had flashed into being, and Bart looked down to see that he was holding his hammer in his right hand. The head of it, curved claws almost pressed against Liam’s ribcage, shone in the lamplight.
“I… I didn’t realise I’d…” Bart stumbled backwards, slipping the hammer back into his tool-belt on the second attempt. “…I’m sorry.”
“Just go,” Liam said. He had unfolded his arms, eyes darting this way and that. “You’re done here.”
Bart looked from face to face, from human to animal, and quailed at the solid wall of stares. Liam’s eyes were uncompromising, and without another word, Bart left.
He walked out into Third Street, barely even aware of the passers-by he scattered to the left and right. The sounds of the underground street echoed oddly, conversations coming from odd angles and mixing with footsteps, pawsteps, the slither and shuffle of movement.
Third Street into Beggar’s, to the steps up to the overcity and into the dull grey of a cloudy day. Bart scowled at the light rain in the air and let his feet guide him into the nearest inn.
The light inside was even dimmer, revealing a long wooden bar behind which a stocky woman stood. Only one other customer sat at the bar, an old man with grizzled whiskers slumped asleep or unconscious. Bart left the door to close behind him and slid onto one of the wooden barstools.
“Ale,” he muttered. He dug in his pocket and threw down some coins. The woman behind the bar swept them into her hand and, picking up a wooden mug, began to pour from a barrel.
“Not seen you in here before,” she said, closing the spigot on the barrel. She placed the mug in front of him and spread her hands, leaning heavily on the bar. “Early, too.”
“I paid. What more d’you want?” Bart picked the mug up and took a mouthful, ignoring the oily sheen on the surface. He drained the mug and set it down. “Another.”
She paused for a moment, then took the mug and refilled it. “Love problems? Work problems?”
“Job,” Bart said. He grimaced. “I had a job, and they took it away. Took it away from me like, like thieves…” He took another swallow and set the mug down, leaning closer and lowering his voice. “Didn’t want the job anyway. Down in the Veins, where there’s no sun, and it smells, god, smells of animal.” He drained the mug.
Her mouth twisted in distaste, plump lips thinning. “We’ll have none of that talk,” she said. “You can take it elsewhere. There’s no discrimination here.”
Bart growled and slammed the empty mug down onto the bar-top. “Like that, is it? What, a man’s not allowed to have an opinion now?” He rose, mug still in hand. The stool crashed to the floor behind him.
From somewhere under the bar, she withdrew a wooden club. “Out,” she said, pointing it at him. “Go on. Piss off.”
Bart drew back his hand and threw the mug, but she ducked. It bounced off the wall behind her, rattling to the floor. Before it had even finished its arc, he had turned and yanked the door open, pushing himself out into the chill afternoon.
“Bitch,” he muttered, thrusting his hands in his pocket. “You’ll get yours.” He spat a glob of phlegm at the ground and walked away into the dimness.