Thick, oily smoke belched up into the sky, blotting out the skyline. Stomach sinking, Gaz rounded the corner, already knowing what he’d find. He’d spotted the first plumes from the market, and he knew the streets like the back of his hand.
Someone had torched the squat. Lawmen, rival gang, some idiot puffing cigs and falling asleep, who even knew.
Standing in the middle of the alley, hands in his pockets, Gaz watched his home go up in flames.
The squat was far from the only home he’d ever known. It had been shelter for the last few months. Kitta, the landlord, gave him occasional work. He menaced in doorways when tenants didn’t pay up, then menaced a few stalls in the bazaar when Kitta wanted protection money. He hadn’t had to hurt anyone yet. Which was a relief, because he wasn’t sure he could. Gaz balanced on that precarious edge between child and adult, a boy in a teen’s body, larger in frame than his ambitions and his courage.
A soft, pathetic cough croaked out from the debris. Hunched near a collapsed lean-to, a young girl sat in the dirt, a smear of ash across her brow. Her oily hair, days unwashed, clung to her face and stuck up in the back.
Gaz didn’t recognize her. How long had she been sitting there? Had she crawled out from inside?
The kid turned her big, wet peepers onto him and just stared. She didn’t cry. She coughed sometimes. The two of them stood in a silent stalemate.
“Are… do your folks live here?” he asked, quiet.
He couldn’t pinpoint how old she was. It was tough, with slum kids. They were always too skinny, stunted, looked younger than they were. She could have been two or she could have been a malnourished six. Gaz didn’t grow up around kids. What age did kids even start to talk, anyway?
The girl said nothing. He shuffled a little closer. Instead of flinching and skittering off, she just watched him, head turning marginally.
He crept closer until he loomed over her, staring down at her greasy little head. She had sores, he could see now, little pustules on her skin. Some sort of disease. They festered, uncared-for, red at the edges, weeping from beneath the few rags that wrapped her bony body.
“Oh man,” he said, looking around the alley, wide-eyed. “We should… find your ma.”
But he knew there wasn’t any ma coming. Nobody who lived around here had parents. At least not parents who birthed them. At the rate healthy babies could fetch at the slavers’ stalls, there was no need to bring up extra mouths to feed in this part of town. And bluntly, she didn’t look like anyone loved her enough to keep her around on purpose.
Still, what if? If she had parents, he wouldn’t want to cross them.
He stood there in the alley beside the silent, staring girl until the squat was a heap of coals. No one came for her.
“We oughta… we oughta get you to the clinic,” he said at last, tiptoeing that last bit closer as though his words might frighten her. Maybe she didn’t speak northern.
He found a half-rotted grain sack in the midden and wrapped the child in it. She didn’t complain. Binding her up tightly, Gaz checked that none of her exposed skin touched his as he lifted her up in his arms.
“Sorry,” he said, though he doubted she’d never suffered worse indignities. “You’re sick and stuff.”
He didn’t want to get any ick on him.
So he carried her through the alleys, keeping to the quiet side-streets. For her part, she said and did nothing, limp and listless in his arms, weighing no more than his bag of protection coin and assorted bribes. Bribes that Kitta wouldn’t be collecting now, as she was either dead or driven underground. The leg of meat, the jars of preserves, the money, the jewelry–it was all his now.
So he could afford to take the girl to the Indigents’ Clinic. And it was the right thing to do.
He dropped her off, then mumbled something to the old man about having to run some errands. He didn’t want to hang around. It was embarrassing, showing up on the fringes of the middle-city all shoeless and smelling like he did.
Gaz spent a portion of his newly-acquired wealth on a pair of sandals and two full hours at the midtown public baths. For one of those hours, he simply lounged in the warm water, staring wide-eyed as attendants carried jug after jug of the stuff in. All that water, and it never ran cold.
But then, freshly bathed, he couldn’t bear to put his old tunic and breeches on. They smelled like shit.
So he nicked a pair that looked about his size off a peg in the antechamber. People who used the public baths could afford new pairs of pants.
A shirt was trickier. Not many folks had shoulders as broad as his. So in the end he bought that too. Spent sixteen australs on it. Sixteen! It wasn’t anything fancy, just tightly-woven sailcloth. But it would last for ages if he tended it.
And as he walked back into the clinic, looking to see what had happened to the kid, it felt nice to not smell like garbage anymore.
Gaz hated the Indigents’ Clinic. Not because it reminded him that he’d grown up in the piss-pot of the city, but because sickness and deformity gave him the heebies. He kept to himself, peeking across the rows of beds. The poor treated in this place weren’t afforded any privacy, beds stacked eight to a row in a large open bay. The whole place stank in a different way to the slums.
The little girl was curled up on a bed in the far corner, her face reeking of strong-smelling salve. It glistened wetly on her pale cheeks, and she slept a hard and medicated sleep. Adrift on an adult-sized mattress, she looked impossibly tiny.
“This your kid?”
The source of the voice was a short, slender boy with close-cropped flaxen hair. Well, he was short by Gaz standards. He was probably average human height. Neatly dressed in a slate-grey linen smock, he wore gloves and a bandolier dotted with surgical instruments–long tweezers, scissors, a magnifying glass, a spool of thread.
He looked a little young to be carrying all that around.
“Yep,” said Gaz, finally answering the question. Then it occurred to him the medic might have meant your kid as in your kid, so he suddenly shook his head.
“I mean she’s my kid like I brought her here. But she’s not my kid like my-kid my kid.”
A strangely-delayed smile spread across the blond boy’s mouth, like he was amused by something very private that only had halfway to do with anything Gaz had said.
“So she’s not your kid, but you brought her here. Funny.” He spoke softly, amusedly, again like something about this whole situation was hilarious.
The medic tottered off, tending to the other patients without further word.
Gaz pulled up a stool and sank down by the girl’s bedside, unsure of what else to do with himself. He had no squat to go back to. He had a purse full of coin he didn’t know how to spend. If he ventured back into the alleys, someone would nick it off him for sure. And probably his sandals, too. But he didn’t know how you got a room in midtown. Were there squats in places like this? Rooms you could rent by the night?
He puzzled through his dilemma one wandering thought at a time. For the first time in his life, Gaz had nowhere to be and no pressing needs. No threat to his person in the form of violence, starvation, or a master who’d wonder where the hells he’d got to.
So he spent his hours at the girl’s bedside, waiting to see if she’d wake up. He fished a jar of jam out of his satchel and sucked little mouthfuls of it off his finger. Good jam. Plum jam.
He had a jam-hand crammed in his mouth when that medic boy reappeared, finding his way to Gaz’s side. The street outside had gone dark. Gaz hadn’t noticed.
“You’re still here.”
Gaz wasn’t sure what to say. That hadn’t been a question.
“Yep,” he said, popping the lid back on the jam. Street kid reflex: he didn’t plan on sharing, so hide the food away.
“Funny,” said the medic.
“Everything’s funny to you.”
The medic efficiently undressed the bed beside the girl’s, stripping it of its bloodstained sheets. He folded the cloth in his arms, smirking at Gaz while he did it.
“Not everything. Just you.”
Gaz flipped him a rude hand gesture, starting to wonder what the fuck this guy’s problem was. And the boy slipped off again, tidying bedclothes in all the unoccupied cots and checking on those who slept in the occupied ones.
Gaz didn’t know what else to do, so he stayed there. Around him, relatives filtered in and out of the clinic, checking in on patients and sometimes leaving with them. A man came in holding a badly-crushed hand, twisted fingers swollen and broken and leaking blood. The young medic seemed to be something of an assistant in the place, directing some people to the scruffy old guy who worked in the back room and taking care of others himself. Gaz half-watched, interested by virtue of there being nothing else going on.
Sometimes, the girl seemed close to waking. She mumbled incoherently a few times, then finally spoke up clear enough that Gaz could hear. She was asking for a drink.
“Hey,” said Gaz the next time the young medic wandered by. “She’s asking for a glass of water.”
The boy glanced down, nodded a little, and said that was a good sign. Then he flitted off into the bowels of the building where Gaz couldn’t see him.
When the medic returned, he was carrying a small wooden tray. Upon it were two tall clay cups of water, a heap of sliced bread, and a small chunk of cheese. He set it on the foot of the unoccupied cot beside Gaz’s stool.
“Here you go,” he said, perfunctory. “Thought it might go well with your jam.”
Gaz’s mouth watered. He explored the contents of the tray while the medic tried to coax the little girl into drinking. He had moderate success. She hiccuped and laid back down.
“Still still here,” Gaz said, pulling the jam jar out of his satchel.
“I’m not kicking you out.”
Plunking the jar onto the tray with the rest of the foodstuffs, Gaz offered an introduction.
“I’m Gaz,” he said.
“Calay,” said the medic. His smile was odd and quick, like he wasn’t used to doing it or was expecting something to go wrong.
“So you help run this place?”
Gaz smeared jam on a slice of rich, fibrous brown bread. It was still soft on the inside, still fresh, thin-crusted. He was careful not to appear too eager, although he’d only had bread this nice maybe twice in his life.
“I do.” Calay sliced cheese with a thin horn-hilted knife, offering Gaz a small wedge. “I’m the apprentice here. I work for Mr. Linten.”
It was amazing, the type of conversations you could have when you had clean shoes and a clean shirt. A physician’s apprentice, that was the sort of person who normally crossed the street when they saw Gaz coming. He was so learned for someone so young. So well-spoken. And he had a real job you had to know stuff to do.
“It’s good that you guys do this,” Gaz said. He was on uneven footing, conversationally. What did people like this talk about?
“It is,” agreed Calay. He seemed to use one word for every five Gaz used.
Gaz ate slower than he wanted to, taking small bites and actually chewing them. He ate like Kitta did when she met with her business colleagues. Sometimes Gaz watched the door during those kinds of meetings, and while the conversations were always insufferably boring, they usually fed him after.
The bread crumbled on his tongue, intensely flavorful and dark. The sweet jam and the soft, sweet cheese combined for a truly pleasurable eating experience. Gaz, despite his best efforts to not inhale it, didn’t actually speak again until he’d finished the slice.
“Thanks,” he said, licking crumbs off his thumb.
Calay’s slim shoulders lifted in a modest shrug. “It’s nothing,” he said. Then he pursed his mouth, regarding Gaz with a subtle tilt of his chin. He leaned back on the cot, relaxing slightly. The bloodstained mattress didn’t seem to bother him at all. Which Gaz supposed made sense, given how many hours a day he probably spent in the clinic.
“So why are you still here?” he finally asked. He looked at Gaz like Gaz was a puzzle with a missing piece.
Gaz was easily swayed by food, and not the type to lie unless a situation really warranted. So he just told the truth.
“I guess I don’t really have anywhere else to go?” He sipped his water, then gave a shrug of his own. It was enough of an answer.
“You live on the streets?” Calay kept up the questions, although Gaz didn’t feel pressured or interrogated. He asked like he was just curious.
“Sort of. But not really. I lived in a tenement. But it burned down.”
“Ah. Over on the Eastside?”
Built on a series of hills, Vasile was a place that made it easy to gauge where folk came from. The further west you lived, the better off you were. The far eastern neighborhoods were crumbling slums, no longer maintained by the city and left to the likes of folks like Kitta.
“Yeah,” said Gaz. “Blackbricks.”
Calay nodded near-imperceptibly, like he was actually familiar with the neighborhood. Gaz thought that unlikely.
“So where do you plan to go when we close up?” With a slender, spidery hand, he gestured to the darkness beyond the windows. “We’re not open all night, I’m afraid.”
Gaz chewed the inside of his cheek. He reached for another slice of cheese, layering it atop bread with jam for grout.
“Dunno,” he admitted. “I’ll figure out something.”
The answer earned him a quiet laugh. Then, after laughing, Calay hesitated. He cleared his throat a little, then glanced toward the short staircase that led up into the backrooms.
“I might be able to help you with that,” he said after a moment. Gaz blinked.
“How?” he asked. “You have a spare bed somewhere?”
Calay pursed his lips. “Sort of,” he said. “We’ve had some break-ins here the last few years. Mostly people looking for drugs or supplies. You’re a big fellow, and having a doorman would likely deter criminal activity. You probably wouldn’t even have to tangle with any of them.”
Well that was a line of work Gaz was familiar with.
“I’ve done that before,” he said. “Even the tangling part.” Although only in self-defense.
“Let me talk to my boss,” said Calay. “You can have the last of this. I’ll finish up my rounds and speak to Mr. Linten.”
Gaz sucked in a breath through his nose and tried not to hold it. A strange nervousness fluttered in his stomach. He felt like he had to be on his best behavior. The clean shirt and shoes had really done it. Maybe this was his big break. His ticket to… well he wasn’t sure what it was a ticket to. Better things than what he’d had. He was so unfamiliar with the wider city, beyond what little he could glimpse from the right vantage points, up on a roof or a hill or whatnot.
Maybe he’d finally get to see it all.
“Hey,” he said, as Calay stood. “Thank you.”
Calay smiled that quick, short-lived smile again, then told Gaz he’d try his best. Gaz got the feeling this kid was smart. That when he tried, he got what he wanted.