Distant Places, Foreign Faces

He was still a young man, reflected Jansath, although this morning he felt ancient, withered by the howl of shuttles echoing through the narrow streets of the Hagaray, and chilled by the cold wind off Lantikell’s stinking harbor.  He had years before him to make up for a bad start.

Accompanied only by his own dark thoughts, Jansath reached the turn from Fal street into Kinonissing.  The gray curves of the domes covering the Erenine appeared in the gap between two buildings.  The physician stopped walking, jammed his fists into his armpits to warm, and glared at the medical complex.

He’d been awake here for nearly thirty ten-days, and had, in the older nomenclature his home habitat used, six years and two months to serve.  Jansath compressed his full lips into a bitter line, drove his fists deeper into the scanty heat held by his thin coat.

Another shuttle wailed overhead, regular as clockwork, and the physician strode off again, shoulders hunched against the wind.  This was tenth-day, and he didn’t want his meager paycheck debited for the second period in a row.  The Erenine was generous with fines and fees-to-be-paid, but not with salaries.

Somewhere behind him a shrill whistle sounded, then a discordance of six or seven others.  The tall young man kept walking, as deliberately blind and deaf as everyone else in Kinonissing Street to the call that they turn out, pursue a thief.

A girl ran past, white legs splattered with muck from the gutters, arms dragged straight down by two knobby splay-fruit.  Her well-scrubbed face was pretty despite its hollow cheeks.  Street-child, thought Jansath.  In Lantikell the poor were clean and lean.  Bathhouses were free, but not food.  Starvation wasn’t contagious, and the city allocated its funds accordingly.

Jansath slowed his pace.

New to the Hagaray, the physician had seen a boy snatch a chuck of smetterling off a vendor’s grill.  He’d grabbed the thief, yelled for a warden, then spent most of his shift being cursed by both the robbed and the robber in the district justice hall.

The trial machines dismissed the case as too petty for concern.

The Erenine had fined him two days’ salary for missing work.

The clamor of the pursuit almost upon him, the physician stopped, stared into a bubble-widow filled with desiccated selt, baskets full of flaked seaweed, and braids of mixed tidbits, all surrounded by an array of shells and nets.  Half the city lived on dried seafood and noodles.  The poorer half, reflected Jansath, tasting salt fish on the back of his own tongue.

He had no intention of helping catch another hungry child.

The deep rumble of an incoming shuttle shook the persplex as the distorted reflections of two shop-boys ran past.  They were followed by a handful of idlers, attracted by the excitement.  Odds were the chase would get no farther than the Lower Market.  A quick game of twice-three and the boys would go back, say the girl had lost them amid the booths and shill-stands.

The whistles faded in the distance.

The physician strode in their wake.

Three-fingered monks scampered in the gutters, intent on plucking the edible from the trash before it all was washed into the drains by the cleaning cycle.  Two ran in front of Jansath, one eating even as it ran, the other in chattering pursuit.  Stripped of its prize, the original finder returned to the gutter, looking over the trash with angry green eyes, dorsal flap still half-lifted.

Humans on shift-change streamed past, hurrying a bit in the chill, plunging into the warmth of open doors to buy a bit of this or a quarter-unit of that, then dashing off, eager to reach the security of home.  The chant of clerks weighing-out came from every quick-food and liquor shop.  Business, if small-scale, was brisk.

The pawnbroker’s display bubble was emptier than it had been yesterday.  Jansath lengthened his stride, then sighed in relief as he came up.  The shabby child set to watch the street glanced at the young man and, seeing neither thief nor prospective customer, went back to counting and stacking twice-three stones for the shop’s till.  The window had been rearranged, one or two items sold, but it was still there.

It was a pyrrin, stiff and aristocratic in frayed silks, gazing serenely at the swarming rabble of the slum.  All around it ribbon-bound bundles of festival gloves stood on their embroidered cuffs, their fingers petals of faded crimson, celadon, cream.  In the back corner a swag-bellied herb jar, so worn its surface was more tan clay than turquoise glaze, overflowed with game counters, the money of the poor.

Jansath pressed his upper arm against his side, feeling the sharp edges of his own credit, hidden in an inner pocket of his tunic.  Here in the Hagaray few people had one.  People bought salted smetterlings, paid the rent, bribed the wardens with twice-three stones.  The watch-child slotted a double dozen into place in their tray, and the physician sighed.

It was more than he made in a ten-days.

Jansath hadn’t the nerve to push his way past the buzzing security curtain to ask what the haughty figurine cost.  Barely able to feed, clothe, and house himself, he nearly pressed his nose to the persplex, looking.  Someone must have a legitimate claim to it, he wouldn’t be able to take it home to his habitat.

Nonetheless he coveted it.

Carved from some milky substance—not stone, something organic, tooth, tusk, bone, or perhaps a blank created and grown for the purpose—the aristocratic face stared, red-tinted lips dinted ever so slightly by the tips of two upper fangs, silver irises alive with the mirrored motions of passersby.

Three children ran past, hooting.  The physician glanced behind him, saw a half-dozen lounging men vanish through a doorway, heard the clang of a closing gate.  He studied the pawnshop’s unredeemed goods intently while five wardens in their florescent yellow unialls passed, too conspicuous to surprise anything they might not want to know about.

Jansath counted fifty before he looked after them.  In the Hagaray, a man paid a fee to his local gang and went, if not unmolested, at least secure in the knowledge that the vengeance for any major injury would be triple-fold.  He was the green’s, and these streets were safer for him than they were for the wardens.

His gaze returned to the pyrrin, lingering on the long-nailed fingers and upswept eyebrows, tracing the enigmatic curves of the mouth.  By the creases in the sleeves, the slender arms were jointed.  From his searches in Orikan’s data-base, Jansath knew even the deep-cleft toes hidden inside the miniature boots would be perfect, as would the genitalia.

Loving hands had embroidered the overrobe with pinpoint flowers, fitted the flat hat so carefully that it still sat squarely on the head, pinned to the braided coiffure of real hair.  Once the figurine would have been reclothed each year in the best its household could afford.  Now the two upright tassels behind its dangling ear-pieces were gray with dust, and its robe was smudged and faded.

Lost in thought, Jansath shifted from one foot to the other, stared through the undulating reflections of the people passing behind him.  No varrtyen would ever have discarded the pyrrin, or given it into foreign hands.  If it had been defiled or broken, it would have been burned with reverence.  This figurine had been stolen or, more likely, taken in some riot—

A lean boy bumped up against him.  Jansath automatically jerked away, boxed the suddenly-empty air with one hand, strode off down the street, furious with himself.  He knew better than to gape.  Tall, with a bushy head of auburn hair and a skin darker than was the norm here, Jansath was plainly foreign, easy prey for a pickpocket, even if his coat was blazoned with the green’s mark.

Where Kinonissing opened into the Market, a small crowd was slowly drifting apart, the excitement past.  Splay-fruit’s scarlet pulp had splattered the paving.  One white leg was turned heel out, the other was doubled up beneath the sprawled body.  There was a good deal of blood trickling between the cobbles.

Under the awning of a noodle-stand the two shop-boys were huddled together, talking in loud, uneasy voices.  One saw the orange stain of biocides on Jansath’s face, yelled, “Hey, hey!  Lend a hand?”  The physician looked away.  Let the public protectors handle it, he told himself.  It was their job.

“Hey!”  The young voice was hoarse with fear.  Even if the wardens excused the shop-boys with no-proven-case on their records, their employer, furious at losing the pair for the day, would dock their wages.

And there was the matter of the splay fruit.  The genetically-engineered pod cost more than the average shift-wage, kept indefinitely, and could feed a family of four for a five-days — longer, if there was anything to go with it.

Jansath further lengthened his stride.  He was nearly late and other patients were waiting for him, nearer to drugs and equipment, certified able to pay or on city allowance.  His fists knotted and he opened his fingers with an effort.  “Hey!” someone yelled behind him.  “Hey!”
He had aided people in the street when he first came here.

Bystanders picked his pockets and stole his kit, and most of those he’d treated died.  There was no follow-up, no medicine, not enough food, no proper care at all.  One woman—the physician sternly repressed the memory of a dead child’s agonized mother clawing at his face.  The Hagaray’s sick or injured had to make it to the Erenine to have a fighting chance, and he was due there to treat those who had.

“Hey!”  There was a clatter of clogs on the paving, and a hand with blood-stained knuckles gripped his sleeve.  Jansath wheeled and looked down at the terrified face, touched the green circle on his chest.

The fingers drew back.  “White-face,” snarled the youth, and, louder, “Varr-lover!”  The listening crowd muttered and dissolved into fifteen or sixteen disinterested individuals unwilling to get involved in anything.  The other youth called something conciliatory and got a fist waved at him for his warning.

The physician gritted his teeth and walked on.  Only a fool treated patients in the street, and he wasn’t a fool anymore, or at least not that particular kind.  Another shuttle rumbled down the sky.  Jansath lifted his head to watch.

Home was a lifetime away.

Distant Places, Foreign Faces is available on Amazon.

Copyright 2016 Catherine Mintz. All rights reserved.


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