I stood, looking out at the view of Presentation square that my own balcony afforded. I pounded on the balcony rail with my fist. I have to do something.
Every way that I turned I was forced to be careful so hard that I could do nothing. “Barbarians drawn into clever trap!”, screamed a front-page headline in the crumpled Pages I held clenched in my fist.
I couldn’t get any information… I had a person willing to send me more honest reports and there was no way to get information, or payment, or encouragement or anything. I needed someone who would go back and forth to Antras or Erelas for me… without knowing it was me.
“Binshala! Binshala!” I stormed into my bedroom, hurling my Pages onto the floor. “Tell everyone I’m feeling sick! I want to be alone! I want no one to bother me until after Dinner! No one… no one!”
She rushed in and nodded, hands clasped together… “Braid my hair! Right now!” Her fingers were deft and quick and I vibrated in place as though I couldn’t stand it one more moment. I hadn’t behaved like this in a long time and everyone looked at each other as if I’d gone crazy. They looked at me as if I’d become Father. That was good enough for now. I needed to be alone. Even if it made me sick, being more like Him. That would probably get back to Him and make me safer.
I climbed up into my bed without thanking her. It was hard biting my tongue on something I had worked hard to ingrain. “Have the curtains drawn! I don’t want ANYONE in here disturbing me, until I come out tonight!”
“Yes, of course, Spark of the Sun’s Ray. The exalted shall not be disturbed until after Dinner.”
“Good!” I flung myself on my back and threw my arms around my chest, thumping my head on my pillow and watched the servants pull my curtains tight. “I don’t want to be bothered by ANYONE! Not my dekinas, not my dance master, not my music teacher, not my tutor, not the Mahid medic or Father’s new Haian… no---“ my voice cracked mid word. ‘—body!”
“No one would dare, Spark of the Sun’s Ray.” Her voice came into the dim cave my bed had become, from outside. The distant clatter and rustle as slaves and servants left, making my rooms achingly empty and I welcomed it.
I didn’t move for a while. Then I peeked out of my curtains, wincing a little because my eyes had gotten used to the dim light. It was stuffy and close in my bed and I took a deep breath. My rooms were as deserted as I wanted, sunlight gleaming across my white and gray floors and indigo carpets.
It only took a moment for me to slide down my bed steps and over to my desk, unlock my strong box and count out a dozen copper money chains, and a few silver. They went into a pouch and I re-locked everything. Then into my closet. It was easier to slip into Minakas than last time. I only put the faintest lip colour on, leaning close to the mirror on the closet door to draw a bit of eyeliner. This time I didn’t want to look like a sex boy but a fessas scholar… hmm.
My eye in the mirror, with my finger pulling the lower lid down so I could rim the lid with a light brown, opened and closed its pupil as I stared at myself, darkening it and brightening it. Bright blue. Bright as Aan eyes. I’d have to keep my eyes half lidded. Perhaps when I was older a pair of spectacles would distort or hide my eyes. I looked at the slightly darker lines… more like grains of darker blue in a lighter background. I teared up and my eyes reddened a bit… that would help make them look less like Minis’s eyes and more like Minakas’s.
I grabbed up my pouch, adjusted the wig one last time, checked my belt so the insignia showed and trotted down to the kitchen level and out through one of the servant’s delivery doors as if I’d been sent out on an errand to the city.
It felt as though I were cracking through a shell. The dark tunnel that lead from the kitchens past the sentries and the check points. Nobody stopped anyone leaving. The careful checks were for those coming in, and I didn’t intend to come in past any of the check-points.
First I went down to the market and bought a purple apple and found myself suddenly hungry. No one tasted this for me. Just a plain apple bought from a vendor, to an anonymous boy. I spent too much time digging through a used bookseller’s cart and realized that I needed to haggle with him, from listening with the seller and his customers. I bought four books for less than he asked. I probably didn't haggle hard enough since he seemed happy enough with what I paid him.
I was just happy to try haggling a little. I’ve done this all my life. I’m fessas, fessas, fessas. This is normal. I wrestled a bit with the bag and found I had to loop it over my shoulder to carry it comfortably. I’d never had to carry anything before.
I went down to the border of the fessas and solas quarters to a dark little bar I’d never seen before. It was called Miksas’s and I sat down across from it on a park bench. The staff… I watched them come and go, preparing to open for the evening and realized I didn’t want any of them. Or their customers really. I needed someone willing to come and go out of the city.
No. This wasn’t the place to look. But something had me sit for a while longer, pretending to read one of my books. I was just as frustrated here as in the Palace. What could I do? I looked up at the passing crowds… boys with baskets, parcels, or bundles almost as big as they were trotting along, every one an apprentice, every one working hard.
Men renovating the front of a building… fessas… a group of solas, just off training… joking together as they gathered to sip juice from a vendor near the bar. A beggar… fessas. His hair was the right length. A young man pretending not to be a beggar.
I wouldn’t have seen him, tucked into an alcove next to Miksas’s. He had a table made up of salvaged bricks and boards it looked like, with a cheap cloth thrown over to disguise it. I went over to the juice seller and bought a twist-paper cup of juice. Everything tasted better out here.
Maybe I could run away into Minakas. I closed my eyes. It would be trying to run away from my fate… the fate that the Gods had handed me. I couldn’t do that. I had to keep trying. I opened my eyes and they settled on the young man again. He was a solas. His build was that of a man who should be on active duty, but thinner than he should be.
He was trimming quills, obviously not able to afford a real pen. His inkwell was the only thing good about his set-up. His clothing was mended, and mended and mended, looked worn. But the clothes were painfully clean and he – or someone – had tried their best to iron creases into fabric worn so soft they couldn’t hold.
He had paper. It was raw, salvaged paper, re-pulped and re-made by hand. He stood up a time or two… called out ‘Letter writing! Reading for you! Letter writing for a small fee!” I might not have understood everyday life in the city but he was in the wrong place. Here, everyone knew how to read and write. He needed to be in the okas quarter, where his skill would be valued, even if okas had less money.
He was thin. While I sat and pretended to read, I saw an older girl come by and bring him a bite to eat, while he sat. Probably his sister. She teased him a little and he smiled at her, sweetly.
I shouldn’t approach him. He seemed too nice for me to ruin his life. But… could I help him? Could he help me? His sister had brought him his mid-afternoon sup. I didn’t have much time… dinner was coming too fast, when the sun went down under the rim so early. I had perhaps another two beads before anyone dared check on me.
In the daylight no one considered me as anyone but someone in the street. In the day, I was safe. But it had to be dim enough that I could sneak back into the Palace without anyone being the wiser.
I bit the inside of my lip, considering my solas would-be letter writer. He was old enough to have been deployed. Why was he not in a rejin? I thought I should speak to him.
I settled down on the little seat across from him. He was hiding how skinny he was. His clothes hung on him. “Heya.”
“Hello,” he said. “Have you a letter to write?” His words were very careful, equal to equal, though he was superior caste to me. I was a potential customer.
“No. no… this’un can write letters my ownself… but,” I had to think carefully to speak one up. I paused and rubbed my gloves over the edge of his table. “This’un was going to ask that’un, though...” I dropped a whole copper chain in his basket. “This’un should pay that’un for ‘s time, since this’un’s asking you questions…”
He looked as though he didn’t want to be excited by a copper chain, but I hadn’t seen him pull in that much in the last bead. “Very well, ser.”
“That’s good. Might this’un ask... might this ‘un...” I couldn’t figure out how to ask without insulting him.
He snorted laughter. “You’re trying to ask politely why a solas isn’t out fighting like he should be? Lad, for a copper, I can tell you the story.” I nodded, dropping another chain into his basket. Then I realized he’d not been hinting for another, but would have been willing to tell me for the first. I blushed and saw him smile as he realized my mistake.
“Would you like to take that copper back, ser?” I shook my head no.
“Thank you, ser. I was dishonourably discharged from my rejin, ser.” His eyes didn’t flinch but reddened all around. He drew in a deep breath and though his voice shook he faced it. “My centurion claimed me coward. Not in the face of the enemy. He didn’t want my life... he wanted my affianced.”
“But... but that’s... vile!” I couldn’t help but blurt out. “That’s not right!” I clapped my hand over my mouth. Had my accent wobbled in that outburst? I didn’t think it had.
“Thank you for that thought, ser.”
“Yeh don’ seem a coward tah this un, ser.” He smiled and again I was struck with how much I liked his smile... it was open and reminded me of the good people I’d been finding all around me. I reminded myself that I didn’t know he was good. He was a grown man and would be safe on the roads if I equipped him. If I could hire him. If he proved honest. “Ser. I have a patron who needs a courier to go out-city. Would you be willing to take the work?”
“Out city? Courier?” He folded his hands in his lap and looked down. “I will accept any legitimate work.” His eyes flashed up to lock on mine. “Nothing illicit, ser. My name might be in ruins, ser, but I may know my own soul. I will do nothing against the law.”
I could feel myself blushing. He thought I was like the fellow who had propositioned me out of an alleyway. “No, no. It is nothing against the law.” Against what my Father might want if he thought of it, but it certainly wasn’t illegal for me to hire my own couriers. “It might even be somewhat dangerous but this ‘un’s patron pays appropriate for it.”
His eyes widened, then narrowed. “Out city and dangerous.” He set his quills down in a careful row. He didn’t look at me, but rather down at the row of pale feathers. “Ser. I will also do nothing dishonourable.”
“This’un’s patron requires delivery of a series of packets from a writer out city and return courier to that same writer.”
“I’m nervous of this job, ser. You are young to hire for your patron, are you not?” He could use the work. It was obvious that he could not work in the rejins and was desperate but still had to find out if it was honourable. Perhaps he is the muddy gem I hoped to find.
“Yeha,” I said. “But yeh’d be picking stuff up from a man from the Fire Fountains. And he’ll haf a post office box fer yeh to drop information at after. Pick up yer pay there, put the packets in... take the packets and then haf tah find th’ writer again.”
I sat quietly then, thinking I shouldn’t push him any further. I thought I’d found someone who had enough desperation but I couldn’t be immediately sure. But if he failed… he wouldn’t bring Minis down.
He took a deep breath. “An honourable, legal job offer, ser? I accept.”
“Good. This ‘un’ll give an advance on pay then. If that that ‘un doesn’t come to th’ meetin’ point then reports’ll be made tah th’ Sereniteers but if that ‘un does there’ll be… travel pap’rs an’ travel cash. What that ‘un needs.” I dropped a single silver chain into his basket, palmed so no one could see what it was.
(fessas) I reminded myself. “This ‘un needs a name then… and that ‘un don’t need mine then… not yet. And that ‘un’d need tah come tah the Fire Fountain tomorrow tah meet a fella by the name of Antras." No last names. Antras would be on this evening… I’d tell him what I’d done then. "At fourth bead.”
I saw his eyes flicker to the bowl on his table and I restrained myself from putting more chains in. I felt like I could trust him but if I started throwing money around he wouldn’t. “Nah problem, ser.” I said to him. “’kin that ‘un ride or skate?”
His eyes widened for a second. Then shutters dropped over his eyes. “Ride, ser. I skated as a boy but not well.” He took a deep breath. “My name is Tzanas Kinas, solas.”
“Nice tah meet ‘cha, Tzanas. Tomorrer, Fire Fountains. Fourth bead after noon tah accept the first packet.”
He nodded at me. “Good day to you then ser.”
“Pleasure doin’ business, ser.” He stood up to bow me on my way. Now all I had to do was sneak back into the Marble Palace the moment it was dark enough.