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.