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An editor scrambled to the call, perhaps prodded to more speed than usual by the brooding figure that License Master Bai made, arms crossed as he surveyed the room. The printing room at the licensing office was never less than frenzied. Twenty-three license presses creaked and whirred as their operators swung the plates into place, typed in names and re-stocked the inks. Giant fans kept the fumes from collecting and sped the drying process, and clerks and scribes hollered directions at each other over the noise of the machinery.
The licenses were set here, each letter block put into place by the typing machines. They were a new invention of this last decade - Bai remembered training on the hand-set presses and appreciated the leap of efficiency for what it was. He'd had to lean heavily on the city council to fund them, promising that they would pay off in the long-run.
"Proof!" Another press called for an editor and raised a red flag by their workstation.
The license would be proofed on poor paper and cheap ink by one of the highly-skilled editors, who compared the information from the justification form and checked for errors and omissions and signed their name on the justification form. Getting the tattoo-matching imprint was particularly tricky, and it took a special kind of mind to catch the minor offsets of the two-colored inking system. Bai could find errors with effort, but the editors were trained to do it with boggling speed and accuracy.
After the editor approved the proof, the blocks were cleaned by a scribe and the inkwells were filled with the proprietary ink. The press was loaded with the thicker paper for a license - and the final print was made and inspected for flaws. One of every hundred at each press was printed twice and presented with the justification forms to a department manager, who would check again for inaccuracy. Presses that delivered more than one inaccuracy a month were put on probation and had to supply one-in-twenty for review. Bai hadn't had a press under probation for two full years now - until this last tenday, when two of them had gone on probation.
The finished licenses were handed off to clerks, who would sort and file them with their justification forms for pick-up. The proofs were stacked to be recycled - the proofing ink was weak and broke down easily in the paper-making process.
"What a madhouse," an unexpected voice said by Bai's ear.
Normally, Bai would have greeted Urti with a broad grin, but he couldn't muster more than a faint smile for the monitor. "The first of the tenday is always like this," he rumbled. "The tenend spoils us all."
Urti raised a reddish eyebrow at him. "You don't look so spoiled," he said sympathetically. "You look like you might need an alcohol prohibition added to your license."
Bai rubbed his face, as embarrassed by his obvious hangover as he was his unreasonably foul mood. "I don't need you to refer me to the medical guild yet," he protested. "Just had a hard tenday, and spent too much of the tenend trying to make up for it." The last License Master had become a roaring drunk to deal with the stress, and Bai could half-understand the impulse, now.
Urti frowned at him. "Ressa says you've been down."
"Ressa shouldn't gossip like an old woman," Bai snapped. A nearby clerk looked up, clearly hearing him over the din of the room, and Bai turned and led Urti out of the printing room, down a hallway and out into the Licensing Office courtyard. As the deafening noise fell away behind them, he asked, "Why are you here, Urti?"
The courtyard was a sprawling space, with walled gardens that were a riot of summertime foliage. During workbreaks, they would be filled with lounging employees eating provided foodgoods. It was currently deserted, except for a young scribe with her head bent over paperwork at one of the long tables. Urti picked up a game ball that had been left out and threw it overhand into the storage bucket. Bai often spent his lunch at this level, though there was a balcony level courtyard reserved for the managers.
Urti grinned, and Bai lowered his eyebrows in suspicion. "I've got news that might cheer you up."
"That boy you found - the accidentally unlicensed one?"
"Amaroin?" It had been nearly two months since Bai had found him - and lost him. Bai had not stopped feeling like a failure whenever something happened to remind him of the incident. "What of him?"
"We got a lead," Urti said with triumph. "We tracked the two back to their Purist tribe, but they hadn't returned there - they went to a sister in Faajaffug."
"Faajaffug?" The metropolis was the length of the continent south of them, one of the oldest cities in the Empire, and several times the size of Affamarg - it would be a good place to get lost. "Have you made contact?"
Urti shook his head. "We've confirmed that the boy and his grandmother are there, but haven't moved in."
"Why not?" Bai resisted the urge to shake the taller man urgently by the shoulders.
"Ressa suggested you'd want to do it," Urti said with a laugh. "Something about foolish noble feelings of responsibility and having too much vacation leave accrued. I think she wants you out of the office so she can clean up your desk."
"Ressa talks too much," Bai growled, but he couldn't quite keep the smile from his face.
Getting a priority travel license wasn't difficult with credentials like Bai's, and he didn't hesitate to put the Imperials down for an expedited turnaround. He hovered at the side of the press while it was being pulled, and sent his justification form directly to the permanent files as he blew on the ink to finish the drying so he could tuck it into his license pouch.
"That's against protocol," Ressa said from behind him. "You should have to stand in line like any citizen."
"Scuff protocol," Bai said with a chuckle.
Ressa feigned shock. "Who are you?" she demanded. "What have you done with the License Manager?"
"He's on vacation," Bai quipped back, and was rewarded by Ressa's rich laughter. "Leave a message with the Master Clerk and he'll get back to you in a tenday and a half." The license was dry - he tucked it into his pouch.
"I'll be waiting for his return with baited breath," Ressa replied. She quickly added, "I'm sure the Licensing Office will cease to function without him." Bai wondered if he imagined the tenthtick of tension between her sentences. Probably.
"You and Layla will probably run everyone harder that I would," Bai predicted. "I suspect I'll come back to find that we're all caught up and our standard license turnaround has been cut by a tenday."
"Or we've all quit and retired to Affafilalo to lounge on the garden roofs and you have to process a stack of licenses seven stories high by yourself. I haven't decided yet..."
Bai wondered if his laugh sounded as rusty to Ressa's ears as it did to his own.
"Safe travels," she said in parting, and she didn't look back as she marched down the hallway to the file room she ruled.
Bai spent the majority of his train trip pacing the very small footprint of his private berth. Most trips, he liked to mingle in the public cars of the train, meeting people and learning their stories. Sometimes he would wear the white hat, and sometimes he liked to leave his robes behind entirely and be an ordinary citizen, meeting other ordinary citizens.
This trip, he was consumed with wondering how this meeting would go. What would he say to the boy about to become a citizen? Would Amaroin be afraid? What would his grandmother think? Would she cry?
The landscape out the window changed - temperate northern forest fell away to plains. They followed the great northern rim to the east, then dropped south, through wild arid lands that had as many Purists as citizens. The plains grew richer as they traveled southwest, and more civilized, then punched through a gap in the mountains to the south, and the land grew lusher and warmer.
Faajaffug was humid and hot, and Bai found that his heavy northern clothing was overkill. He couldn't abandon his formal robes for this event, but he bought a lighter under shift, and was grateful that the trappings of his rank were sleeveless.
The address Urti had uncovered was in a poor section of town, and he gathered many surprised looks. Faajaffug was more class-segregated than Affamarg, and he scowled and vowed to work harder to support the reform movements that would address the divide. The system worked, he wanted to protest. He was here with proof of that, and even in the face of the dingy, crowded streets, he felt optimistic.
A sharp rap at the door revealed - after a long moment - a woman with obvious Ibabesh blood - younger by several years than Amaroin's grandmother, but still possibly her sister. She looked suspiciously at his robes and asked with clear reluctance, "What can I do for you, citizen?" She didn't invite him in, or open the door more than courtesy required.
"I'm here to see Amaroin," Bai said without preamble. "I have something of his."
He didn't wish to terrify the woman, or inspire another cross-Empire flight, so he held up Amaroin's new license. The paper was fresh and unmarred, the ink crisply printed on the gleaming white surface. Bai suspected that no boy of Amaroin's age in the Empire had such a flawless license.
The woman's mouth dropped open, and when she'd recovered enough to operate her jaw again, she let out an astonished stream of Ibabesh, too fast for Bai to pick out any of the few words he knew. The door fell open as she released it and back-pedaled into the room. Bai waited at the door for only a moment, then considered it an invitation and strode into the apartment.
It was a small room for a family of four, and smaller still for a family of four and two fugitives. He was in time to watch Amaroin being coaxed out from behind a cabinet in the cooking area, looking wary.
"Hello again," Bai said broadly, holding out the license.
"That's... mine?" It was difficult for Amaroin to speak - he was being buffeted by embraces from his extended family. His grandmother was indeed weeping. He escaped them. "What if I don't want to be a citizen?" he asked belligerently. "Why should I join the Empire?"
Bai hadn't considered that, but the answer was easily found. "So you can go to school, and answer every one of your questions. You can have your apartments in Affamarg back. Your grandmother can have her garden. You don't have to hide behind kitchen cabinets when there's a knock on the door."
Amaroin considered that with more gravity than a seven-year old should. "I accept," he said formally, and Bai put the license in his hand, noting that it immediately showed dirty fingerprints.
"I have something else for you," he added, and Amaroin clutched the license as if he was afraid Bai would take it back.
Bai reached into his own license pouch and pulled out the paper butterfly the boy had left behind. He had carefully dried and pressed it, though there was nothing to be done for the water-damaged colors.
Amaroin was not impressed. "You saved that old thing?"
Bai laughed. "I told you it was lucky, didn't I?"