This chapter contains scenes of violence and mild discrimination.
25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Knyskna City, northern Shaila.
Leander Gaurige felt quaking artillery blasts and heard the shrieking of rifles and the rhythmic thudding of machine guns. Nestled inside the tunnel that once led out of his pillbox, he had his eyes closed but could still see the flashes inside his eyelids whenever a shell went off outside, cutting instantly through the dark. He could feel the hot air wafting into the pillbox. It would become hard to breathe for a moment as the smoke blew inside.
He could not sleep, not in this appalling situation, but he was expected to. This would be the only rest he was allowed at his post. Perhaps it would even be the final time that he voluntarily laid down on his pack and closed his eyes.
Soon he would have to join the battle in earnest.
He was thankful, however.
He got to live these dark days as a he felt a man would have lived them.
And others recognized his efforts.
“Gaurige,” He felt a rifle butt scrape against his cheek.
But it was too soon! He wanted to cry out at the injustice of it.
“Just a minute, please, comrade.” Leander dazedly said.
Satisfied with this response the rifle retreated through the tunnel opening again. There was no more putting it off. All the noise had died down, and with a lull in the enemy shelling, that meant he would rotate out. Leander sat up as much as he could, and gathered his implements, his sub-machine gun, his sharpened trench shovel, his one grenade.
He clipped his belt on and began to button up his uniform shirt. He sighed as he did so, feeling an itch from the worn and sheared elastic of his chest binder, threatening to snap. It was starting to slack a bit as well – he had been fighting for days now and just had no time to try to find a replacement binder to keep his breasts bound.
He crawled out of the dirt tunnel and up to the tight concrete quarters of the pillbox.
Once back on his feet and straightened out, he saluted.
“Oh, forget that.” the Sergeant said, shaking his head from a corner of the pillbox where the machine gun was set, right beside their dilapidated 45mm short-barreled gun. “Don’t salute anyone on your way! Just, run with all your might to the staging area!”
Everyone cooperated to push aside the 45mm gun to create an opening around the side of the aperture. Their pillbox was a fairly large structure for its kind, made to hold both an anti-tank and a machine gun emplacement. With their tunnel partially collapsed behind them by a shell, the only way to leave the circular, concrete defense was to dive through the long firing slit and run. Leander nodded to his comrades, and took a deep breath.
He was soaked in sweat and felt his stomach rolling in his belly. Lining himself up with two other men, he waited for the sergeant’s signal. All of them had been called to join an assault group – the fighters in the city needed everyone they could spare.
From the slit of their box, they could see the outline of the Djose woods almost a kilometer out in the dark.
Since Nocht had taken the forest, largely without a fight, the woods had become a thing to fear at night, a black fortress in the distance from which cannons belched fire out to Knyskna, the rail hub and economic capital of the Shaila dominance.
A broad and open road leading from the wood to Knyskna had been smashed featureless and the field between the defensive line and the forest was littered with shell holes. Craters of many sizes pockmarked the area. No longer was the field an undisturbed green, but a sickly expanse of ashen holes and upturned dirt, intercut with bizarre areas of intact grass and flowers.
The Sergeant was almost in tears before giving his signal.
“Run fast, ok? Don’t look back. Ayvarta needs you now.”
Leander nodded grimly, as did the soldiers with him. Nocht bunker-suppression batteries had pre-sighted the fronts of their pillboxes already. It was their feet, versus the enemy spotters.
The Sergeant looked out to the woods with his binoculars.
He snapped his fingers and cried, almost in pain, “Go!”
Leander and the men with him rushed out of the slit, climbing over the lip and forcing themselves through. Leander was very slender, and he easily rolled between the slit, gathered himself and took off running from the pillbox and into town. His comrades were not as lucky. He heard the ominous sawing noise of a Norgler machine gun and put his hands over his head, closing his eyes as he ran. Behind him he heard screams.
Someone had been clipped in the leg.
He heard a thud as a compatriot tripped, and became fodder for the guns.
There were still steps behind him, so at least one ally remained.
Leander would not dare to look and confirm this.
From the forest the enemy opened up on the pillbox and their fire trailed up the road. Norglers blew automatic fire across the defensive line, and were soon joined by field artillery. Half-hunched and running as fast as he could, Leander could still tell a shell had fallen – there was a silence like a sucked-in breath followed a loud, echoing blast. Had the blast been solitary he would have heard the fragments and the dirt falling back to earth a few moments later, and the billowing of smoke; but shells hardly ever fell alone. As he ran into the city a tumultuous artillery barrage followed. Blast after blast silenced the screaming at his back. It was a cruel cacophony that the victim would never get to hear.
Leander took solace in that he only heard the shells.
That he heard the blasts meant that the shells were not meant for him.
He rushed up the road and weaved around the closest row of buildings. To the last one they had been bombed out, the walls collapsed and the roofs sunken through the middle of each structure. They had been hit with sparse bombardments but even one bomb was enough to knock them out. Once they had been beautiful buildings, whimsical, made of rough clay and straw bricks so that they seemed like a confectionary, like brown wafer. Most of the southern part of the city had been reduced to such a state. Leander walked as fast as he could using the buildings for cover, going through two or three blocks of ruined houses before finding himself in an open plaza, the staging area.
He looked behind him one last time and saw nobody coming.
Soldiers gathered into the center of the plaza, picking up armaments and climbing into the backs of trucks to be driven out for the assault on the forest, while officers made the ruins closest to the plaza into their headquarters for fear of being out in the open.
A collection of flat-bed trucks were arranged around the plaza, each carrying air defense guns, 37 or 85mm cannons pointing at the sky. Searchlights shone from the park and up into the dark sky as well, working in tandem with the guns. Looking closely, Leander could see similar lights trailing across the sky further into the city.
They were on the lookout for possible air strikes. Nocht had not yet attacked them at night — but nothing precluded this happening. After all, they themselves were planning a night attack right at that moment. Leander turned his attention away from the sky and stood in the line behind the other soldiers. There were crates near them, and officers handing them weapons and tools that they would need before ushering them into the trucks.
As more soldiers climbed in and Leander came closer to the front of the line, an older woman officer pulled him aside unceremoniously. She seemed very interested in his body, looking down at his legs and examining his build. At first Leander was afraid.
What was this woman noticing about him? Did she have something to say about his identity as a male soldier – and what would it possibly be? But this was Ayvarta, and such things seemed beyond anyone’s concerns.
Instead the woman officer thrust upon him a metal helmet and a metal plate vest, and she led him to a different line and a different set of trucks than where he previously stood. She helped him to affix the metal armor over his chest, and to strap on the helmet over his head. She took his submachine gun magazines, and gave him round drums instead. Once he was fully equipped, she put his SMG in his hands and saluted him.
“You’re going in with the shock troops, comrade. You look nimble enough for it. Frankly, if we left it to volunteers nobody would go. But don’t fret. The armor will protect you from pistols and SMGs, as will the helmet. Don’t dive in front of any Norglers and you’ll be fine. Your job is to punch a hole for us.”
Around him were several other soldiers, similarly dressed. He realized that she was not just addressing him, but all the men and women who were already standing in the line as well. “Punch a hole, ma’am?” Leander asked. He became suddenly conscious of his voice – it was very similar to that of the lady officer.
“We’re gonna be trucking you ladies and gents into the forest to flank the Nocht line – we’re expecting them to attack in the morning and we need to disrupt their advance. You’ll get more instructions on the way.” She gave him a friendly slap in the back and a gentle shove into the line. “Have at them, boy.”
Leander nodded and took his place in the line. Despite the bleakness of his situation, there was something in the character of the Ayvartans around him that gave him strength and that made him face the dark woods and the screeching guns with a nugget of pride and purpose in his heart. Perhaps this was that ephemeral-sounding camaraderie of socialism – or perhaps a hidden little joy he felt from the officer’s acknowledgment.
He felt more strongly than ever that he wanted to protect his new home.
15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Shaila Dominance – Outskirts of Bika, southern Shaila, near Mamlakh border.
“It’s time to go Elea, wake up.”
Leander felt his uncle’s knobby wooden cane rubbing against his cheek.
He heard his dead name being spoken, and he thought to ask for a few more minutes of sleep, but he knew the circumstances would no longer permit it.
“I’ll be right out, uncle,” Leander moaned, turning over in the long basket that had been his bed. Many years ago he fit perfectly, but now he was taller, and his lean brown body almost doubled over to fit inside the basket. He heard the thick, beaded curtain clinking as his uncle walked out of the wagon to give him room to make himself ready.
Leander pulled himself up to a stand by the wooden beams running across the wall of the wagon. He took a mango from a nearby basket and nibbled on it while searching around the wagon for some men’s clothes. He threw on a shirt, at first, and a coat over it, and he buttoned both half the way up – then as he remembered, looking into the mirror.
He undid his shirt again, took a roll of bandages, and bound his breasts down with the bandages. They were not very big, thankfully, and he could bind them nearly flat with the bandages. It was uncomfortable – it hurt a bit. But it was all that he could do to them.
Leander looked over himself again and felt pleased.
He was confident in how he looked. Over the past two years, as he had started to feel a certain wrongness with his body and the way people saw him, he had started to make some changes. He had kept his dark hair shorter, to the bottom of his jaw. He had done harder work, and gotten, at least in his own eyes, a bit more muscular and taller. He had hid under a lot of coats and thick pants. It had been a journey of discoveries – nobody in the caravan felt the ways he did, and he had been reluctant to seek their help.
He was right to be cautious – they had started to think he was strange.
Until the past few days, they had kept that to themselves.
But he was overjoyed now, even in light of recent events. He felt so confident, in fact, that he chose not to wear his uncle’s coat anymore. He would not hide himself under layers of thick clothes. He was now a man, a free man, and he would walk without shame.
Leander wrapped the coat around his waist instead, after zipping up a pair of long pants and lacing up some boots that felt a size too big for him. But they were his boots now, and his coat, and his shirt. He was a man, in more ways than one. He would finally leave the caravan and his familiar lifestyle behind, to live with the Ayvartans – the communists. Though he had no choice in the matter, the change of scenery felt proper to him.
His uncle pushed through the beaded curtain again. He embraced Leander, and patted him in the back. He was one of the older, bigger men in the caravan, said to be strong enough to stop a rhinoceros from charging, and yet he had the gentlest face when he looked upon Leander. Tears welled in his eyes as he beheld his new nephew ready to leave.
“Leander.” Leander said sternly.
“Yes. Leander.” He nodded. “Listen. I’m sorry, about everything. Had I known how they would react, damn it, I would have just smuggled you out to the communists myself. You don’t deserve this treatment and it is my fault, because I advised you to tell the people. It was my fault you were humiliated like that. I should have known better.”
Leander smiled. “I don’t care about the caravan, uncle. Besides, it worked, didn’t it? They gave me a man’s way out of here. I was not ever going to become anyone’s bride.”
“I just wish you hadn’t had to feel all those glares.” His uncle said. “To hear all the nasty things they said. I think our traditions are important – but nobody should force you to marry anyone, or to be anything you don’t want. Now you’re out there all by yourself, and I feel like I could have done more to protect you.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I’ll be fine. I’ve heard that the communists give lodging and food and clothes to people for free. I know I can go to their village and live there. I’ll be fine.”
They embraced again. It would likely be the last time.
The instant they let go, Leander was on his way, and he was out for good. He climbed off the back of the wagon, without a traveling bag or money or anything but his half-eaten mango. He hoped that the generosity of the communists was as great as the tales his former friends had told him. He walked away from the circle of wagons, leaving their little clearing in the woods. He felt the stares from the women and the girls folding and washing clothes, and from the men chopping wood for fire, following his every step. They watched him leave with vicious interest. He could hear mumbling all around him as he went.
Past the line of bushes and trees, into the wood, the caravan and its nomadic people disappeared behind him. It was as though Leander had pushed past another beaded curtain, and left so much of himself behind. He could not hear them anymore and thought it unlikely that he would again. There was soon another transition as he saw the road up ahead.
He walked out of the woods, passing from forest to field. He stepped onto the dirt road and began to follow it to the village of Bika. It was very big, for a countryside Ayvartan village, with a multitude of log houses and a few newer, taller concrete buildings that he could easily see from the road. Their caravan had passed through Bika before.
Leander felt as though the sun was hovering directly over his head, and he sweated profusely while crossing the dirt road, flanked by log houses on either side. Sparse trees planted (or perhaps, simply left standing) around each block gave him a temporary respite from the heat. Whenever he took to the shade he felt a cool, comforting breeze. Had the sun not been so furious he would have said it was good weather overall.
There were a few people out on the street as well, looking energetic and untroubled, carrying little baskets or boxes to and fro with food wrapped in paper. Most of the villagers were probably still working – he recalled that the “big” industries in Bika were textiles and wooden construction materials. Interspersed with the log houses there were a few big concrete buildings with tin shutters, where this work probably happened.
After asking around, he was pointed toward the big red and gold building in the middle of the village, and he made for it as fast as he could. There was a sign outside with the Ayvartan government’s coat of arms – a menacing reptile, a hydra, with multiple long necks ending in heads that grasped around the words For Bread, For Cotton, For Home.
Past the doors there was a reception office with two benches. A long desk accessible through a little door separated the front of the reception office from the more spacious back. It was a refreshingly cool room, well lit with electric torches. Spinning fans in the ceiling drove out the heat. At the desk a young, dark-skinned woman in an elaborate red and gold dress and hat greeted him. Her hair was tied into several long braids, which themselves were gathered into a ponytail with a gold ribbon. Leander bowed his head to her and reached for his own hat to tip, only to discover he had brought none.
She smiled nonetheless.
“Welcome, comrade. What do you require?” She asked.
“Ah, well, I don’t know if I have the right place.” Leander said, feeling foolish. He had never spoken to an official before – he wondered if she had more pressing business than to listen to his troubles. “I’m from out of town, you see. I need a place to stay, and some clothes, and other things like that. I have nothing. I’m more than willing to work for it.”
“This is an office of the Commissariat of Civil Affairs.” She replied, and beamed even more brightly his way. “If you’ve nothing to your name but those clothes then you are in the right place.”
“I am ready to work for a home and bread, you see.” Leander hurriedly said.
“Work is not necessary for a minimum of lodging, food and clothes.”
Leander nodded. He marveled at her words – work was unnecessary? He still planned to work. He would have felt too guilty taking from the communists without doing anything in return. In the caravan you had to work or do chores or something to get any food, unless you were a little child. He was too used to it. It was a man’s place, he told himself, to repay his debts and to help make things and do things for his community. But he was astonished that she sounded so willing to feed him and clothe him, and give him a place to stay.
From one of the shelves along the back of her desk, the woman produced a thick, black, leather-bound ledger, which she opened to a fresh page. There were many fields in the ledger page. One in particular evoked a small sense of dread in Leander, but he would tackle it when they got to it. The receptionist urged him to take a stool from one of the corners and drag it over to sit on. They looked over the paper together.
“What name do you wish to register in the Bika township?”
“Leander Gaurige is my name.” He said.
“A lovely name. You can call me Gadi, comrade Gaurige.”
She jotted the name down with her ink pen. “I hope not to presume too much, comrade, but you are a Zigan, are you not? If you register, we will have to ask you stay in the town for at least a year, and until any work season you have started with a state company is completed. Is that acceptable to you, Leander?”
“I’m a Zigan, but it is acceptable. I have left my caravan.”
“You do not have to leave permanently. We respect your nomadic lifestyle. We just ask you give us some of your time before leaving, you see, for administrative–”
“Ah, it’s irrelevant, ma’am.” Leander interrupted. “They don’t want me.”
“Oh, I see. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Gadi wrote down a few things in the big fields near the bottom of the paper, and Leander wondered if her handwriting was just difficult to follow, or if his Ayvartan was slipping. He spoke it well, he thought, and the older folks had taught him to read it as well, and to write it in big, clumsy strokes. But he had a hard time parsing her script, and she seemed to write a lot of acronyms and contractions. Whoever read and processed these letter for the government probably understood, but Leander did not. Eventually she turned to face him again, smiling, and put her finger on a dreaded little blank.
“You wish to register as a male person, correct?”
Leander felt his heart thrashing. “Yes.” He said.
Without any protest, the receptionist put down a D for Dume or male.
“If you ever want this changed, you can return to this office and ask. Administratively, it will take some time to be processed all the way to Solstice. You can also change your name, which takes even longer to process, sadly; but it will be reflected eventually if you ask for it.” Gadi said. Leander wondered if this was something she mechanically told to everyone registering. Regardless, he felt a huge burden lift from his back.
“I think I’m good for now.” Leander said.
Gadi nodded her head in acknowledgment. She bid Leander to wait a moment, and took the ledger to an adjacent room behind a door. He heard a few noises issue from the room, like the whistling of steam and stamping of metal on a surface.
When next the little door opened Gadi had a few additional papers with her, one sheet of which she deposited in a box. She put away the ledger, and handed Leander a piece of paper – it was a copy of everything they had written on the ledger.
“In case you want some proof of your registration.” She said.
From a drawer she then handed Leander several tickets of different colors, some small as those one would get from having gone to a film theater, others the size of business cards. They were made of cheap paper, not even like a treasury note of the sort one exchanged for coins. Each ticket had the stamp of the Ayvartan government, and instructions in small print that described what they traded towards – ration card, housing card, goods card.
All of these tickets did not look like the cards he saw other Ayvartans carrying.
He asked about this.
“Those tickets are traded for the real cards.” Gadi said. “You can go to the Civil Canteen for a ration card, and you get a housing card for your room in one of the lodges, or from someone with a family home that has a room to spare and is willing to let you stay. You can get a shopping card from the msanii, the artisan market, or from the state-run general store in the village. Oh!” Gabi seemed to remember something suddenly.
“Wait one more moment, please.”
Gadi turned and looked in the back of her little room. She bent over a table, pulled a little ticket from a drawer and wrote on it. She then returned to the desk and pressed this ticket into Leander’s hands along with the rest. “This is a ticket for a clinic card. You don’t have to work, but if you wish to register for work, you will be asked to have a check-up at the local clinic, so if you’re eager you should do this as soon as you can.”
Leander quivered inside. He was not eager for someone to look over his body.
Gadi wrapped her hands around his own, and around the little tickets and vouchers.
She seemed to have noticed his reticence and smiled reassuringly.
“Please do not be afraid to go to the clinic. They’ll understand your situation.”
Leader blinked, and smiled a little awkwardly. Again he wondered if she just said that whenever she thought there was some unspecified trouble, or if she said it to people like the Zigan, or if she was saying it to him specifically because she knew. He had been hesitant the moment he took the clinic voucher. How could they understand, when even he did not, when he had so little language for what he felt? But perhaps it was safe to go.
He took all of the vouchers and put them into his pockets.
“If you choose to sign up for work, you can return here and I will give you a stipend equal to a week’s pay, to help you settle.” Gadi said. “From there you will receive wages for your labor, which will be disbursed by your union or cooperative according to council regulations, and which may be adjusted with the season and your work ethic. If not, you will receive a smaller monthly stipend instead.”
“And food, clothing and lodging is still provided?” Leander asked.
“It is everyone’s right to be lodged, fed and dressed.” Gadi assured.
“Alright.” Leander said, slightly bewildered. “Is there anything more?”
“No, that should be all. I look forward to seeing you again.”
Gadi thanked him for his patience and sent him on his way, her encouraging smile never fading from her face. That was all the deliberation necessary – it felt like only minutes since he passed through the door a vagrant, and now he was out the door again a citizen, with papers and prospects. He had distantly heard about the communists and the way they lived nowadays, but never could he have imagined they were true.
He walked a few blocks down to the Civil Canteen, a building emblazoned with the same symbol as the Civil Affairs office, but also a sign depicting a large loaf of bread and a glass of milk. There was no one currently eating, which to Leander proved his idea that most of the villagers were working at the moment. Half the building was open to the air, with only two walls, and the roof held by concrete pillars.
There was one enclosed room, where perhaps the food was kept and prepared, and one long serving counter against the back wall. An older village man stood behind a serving counter, and Leander showed him his ticket. The man went into the adjacent room and withdrew a real ration card and an ink pen, and bid Leander to write his name in clear characters in the back. Leander looked over the card, with its cheerful design of a hilly village overlooking a farm, and he happily signed it, and set it aside to dry.
While they waited for the ink to dry, Leander took a wooden tray from a nearby stack and helped himself to the food, stored in containers along the counter and kept warm by little flames caged far beneath each container, likely turned off and on throughout the day to keep the food delectable. He served himself some curried vegetables, long beans and potatoes and cauliflower in a yellow broth; a few scoops of long-grain rice; and a flatbread the size of his face. Milk was abundant, flavored with different fruits, and he took a wooden mug and filled it to sate himself. He dipped the flatbread in the curry sauce first, to try it out. It was a bit watery, but spicy and flavorful. Better than the food at the caravan!
“So, do you work here?” Leander asked. He then nearly bit his tongue. It seemed a very stupid thing to say right after he had said it, but it was all the conversation that he could contrive.
“Yes, in a sense. People serve themselves, I just take notes for the office. I got a condition, you see.” The man showed Leander his shaking black hands. “Nervous condition, says the clinic, and I can’t work other things. But there’s always something to do if you want to. This counts as a job to the Office, so I took it.”
Leander nodded. He soon emptied his plate, and the ink on his card dried. Nobody had come or gone since he had arrived, though he had seen a few people walk up the street behind him. The Canteen man asked him to sign on a clipboard hooked on one of the pillars, to record that he had eaten one of his meals for the day. There were quite a few names already, likely from people coming in for breakfast. Leander complied graciously.
“I’m new around here, by the way. I hope to settle down. I’m Leander.”
“You can call me Kibwe.” The Canteen man said. “And I understand. We’re near the border so we see people a couple times a year. Runnin’ from awful things in Mamlakah or Cissea, I bet.”
“Where could I find a tailor and a place to stay?”
“Village center, we have a big plaza with the Msanii and the goods shop. Lodge there should have room.”
“Thank you.” Leander pocketed his new ration card.
“By the way, about that card. You won’t get punished or anything if you eat more than you’re allowed, but just know that it puts a bit of a burden on the village.” Kibwe said. “If you’re hungry and you’ve had your meals for the day, you should pay for any extra food – helps keep the village going in the long run.”
Leander nodded. “I understand. I will see you again soon then, Kibwe.”
“You look like a nice boy, Leander. I expect you’ll be fine in Bika. Peace to you.”
The compliment gave Leander quite a spring in his step. He practically skipped all the way to the plaza in the center of the village.
Everything was conveniently close in Bika, only a few blocks away – it was a big village but still smaller than all the cities his caravan frequented. Despite the heat and the lack of a cool breeze, Leander easily made his way to the open plaza, a stretch of grass and flower beds surrounded by a square of paved street.
This street connected several buildings; the most commanding was large warehouse, entirely open air with a concrete and wood frame and a vaulted tin roof, inside which various kiosks had been erected. There was a fence all around the warehouse instead of a wall – it must have been the artisan market, the Msanii. Leander had visited them in the past, when the older children were allowed day-trips to the city.
Aside from the Msanii the other buildings were perfectly homogenous red and gold-painted concrete rectangles. Both had a long front window and a nondescript wooden door with a single word painted on it – Clinic, General, Civil Lodge. They were big, wide buildings. The window to the Clinic was obscured by various signs stuck to it that warned of seasonal allergies and diseases and offered other health care tips, such as encouraging regular hand-washing and rinsing hair with champo to avoid parasites. In contrast, the General Shop window was laden with goods, such as radios and binoculars and ruffled shirts, and encouraged people to spend their Honors on them.
He stepped into the General Shop, where a pale, balding man in a big robe trailing multicolored beads arranged shoes in a series of small racks along the entryway. He raised up his hand in welcome, but continued his task nonetheless. From the door the shop floor was quite broad and open, with hanging racks of clothes along the walls, stalls with canned food and sweets, and tables along the middle with various boxed goods, or unboxed examples with informational flyers stuck to them.
Many of them bore non-Ayvartan lettering. Some looked to Leander like the Svechthan cyrillic script, which he could not read, while a few even had Hanwan or Noctish markings that he could also not read. He was impressed with the Nochtish items, however, since these had to have been the oldest goods in the store – trade with Nocht had ended with the imperial days, if Leander remembered his Ayvartan history correctly, which he was confident that he did.
Once he organized the shoes, the shopkeep welcomed Leander in earnest.
“Comrade,” he spread open his arms, and jovially took Leander in for a quick, arms-reach embrace, “Good to see you, good to see you.” His Ayvartan was a little tortured. “Looking for a vintage radio, comrade?” He seemed to have noticed Leander’s interest in the Nochtish items, one of which was a radio.
“Oh, not at all. I was wondering if you could exchange this for me.”
Leander handed the man his shop ticket, and it was graciously received.
“Oh, new in town? Excellent. I have to write a little form then – in the meantime, pick some clothes for yourself, you have the right to some clothes for free. Pick from anything without a gold mark.”
The Shopkeep produced a gold-colored paper bill with the Hydra symbol.
“You don’t get these as wages – they’re special issue for rare or shortage goods. If a good has a gold mark, it costs Honors. Unfortunately I cannot part with them for free, in that case.”
Leander nodded his head. He watched the man vanish behind his long counter, looking through messy drawers. While the shopkeep filled his forms and looked for a new shop card for him, Leander perused the clothing aisles along the walls of the store.
He did not want anything too fancy. Or at least, he thought he didn’t as he began to look through the clothing items, until he noticed something very handy tucked away in a corner, behind various women’s ruffled shirts. There were a couple of elastic chest binders, with cords near the small of the back, that when pulled would press against the body – probably for church women from when Messianites had influence in Ayvarta. They would certainly be more convenient to bind his breasts that rolls of bandages.
He picked one of them up, along with some button-down shirts and pants, and a new coat. Most of it looked fairly new, but simply made. He avoided anything gold-marked.
He was issued his card without hassle, and received a cloth bag to carry his things. The shopkeep did not look over them, and cheerfully saw Leander out of the shop, patting him in the back.
“You have a great time in Bika,” the shopkeep told him, though Leander thought he sounded a little artificial, as though he was playing a character, “Remember to say ‘comrade’ a lot!”
Leander laughed a bit, waved him goodbye, and went on his way.
He was feeling tired, and thought it about time to find himself a home.
And home was thankfully only a few steps away from the shop, with a lodge in the same plaza.
He stood before the door and felt a sudden bit of trepidation. After all, if the communists refused him now for some reason, he would be out on the street and everything would have been a waste of time! But he had come this far. He knew it would be fine.
He swallowed his fears and went through the door. Inside he found a desk with a sleepy-looking young woman in a red and gold kaftan, a long robe-like overdress. There was a long hall to his left and right with various doors, and a staircase further ahead leading to the second floor. Leander introduced himself and turned in the appropriate ticket. The young woman woke slightly more, stood up from her desk, took his hand and smiled. Standing, she did not look all that grown-up – she was quite shorter than him.
“Welcome, Leander. I’m Saheli. It’s nice to see a brand new face.”
Saheli searched her desk for the appropriate forms and a card, to which a key was attached by a loop of metal. Leander signed his name again, and he took his room card and the associated room key.
“Is there anything I should know about living here? Is there a fee?” He asked.
“Not in the lodge, no!” Saheli said cheerfully. “Your room is free. It comes with a bed, sheets, pillows, drawers and a closet, a basket, one window looking out. The usual things you expect.”
Her words brought Leander great relief. To think he kept expected different!
“I can come and go as I please?” He asked.
“I would entreat you not to disturb the others with noise, but yes, you can.”
Leander read the card on his key. It was room 2-15, so it was probably upstairs.
“I see. Thank you. So, to confirm, I may retire to this room now?”
“Of course! It is your room, comrade Leander. I suggest you rest – you look a bit tired, and you are clearly a bit strung up! Take some time to calm your anxieties, and you shall love Bika!”
“I shall. Thank you, um, comrade Saheli.”
Saheli bowed her head and took her seat again.
It seemed that the generosity of the communists had not been a fairy tale after all, though Leander found it all still so difficult to completely wrap his head around how well all of it worked.
Upstairs, Leander unlocked his door – his door. His own door. 2-15 was about the size of the living space in the back of his uncle’s wagon. He put down his cloth bag next to his wooden closet, and laid down on the bed. It was long enough for all of him, he did not have to curl up, and it was firm but comfortable. He bounced on his back a few times. This was his bed, in his room, just a few hours after his family had deserted him, called him awful things and threw him out into the world for what he knew in his heart that he was – a man, no matter what his birth.
He wondered with hazy thoughts what work he would do for the communists.
What kind of work would befitted an honorable man of this society?
It was a strange thought when he put it to himself that way, but heartening.
Leander smiled and sat up in his bed, feeling free of worry.
At his side, on the drawer, he noticed that someone had left a book, perhaps with the knowledge that any new boarders might not have any possessions to their names with which to entertain themselves in their rooms. It was a book of Ayvartan fables, tales and religious songs. When he spread open the pages they made crisp sounds, and the book had a distinctively fresh smell. This was a very new book. Leander smiled, and contented himself with reading the book on his new bed, passing the hours, until the sun started to fall, and his eyes grew heavy, and he dozed off without even really noticing it. He felt an eerie peace of mind, as though he had never been exiled at all.
NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — A Place Amid Ashes