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Pretending (1520.07.17): The life of a cripple in the Empire isn't exactly what you might think...
~ 1119 words, Created by: Ellen Million (Writer), Valerie Joanne Higgins (Illustration), Edward Cammarota (Patron), Posted: 09/23/10  

Jiba rubbed his hands together, although they weren't actually cold. Getting sympathy was an important part of begging, and he had mastered the sad, hopeful look and all the gestures that made his job easier. He kept his dark hair cut deliberately shaggy, and practiced just the right, slightly shy look in the mirror of the shared bathhouse, using his big brown eyes to greatest affect in his round face.

He kept his crippled legs out in front of him, even if it was more comfortable to tuck them away underneath him - they reminded the passersby that he was an unfortunate, that he couldn't hope to use the Empire's system for a successful career, and made no apology to the fact that he was asking for their hard-earned money without offering entertainment or labor in return. His license for begging was carefully set out beside his begging bowl, and if it was a little stained and worn-looking, it was not likely to be scrutinized closely.

A token clinked into his bowl with the dull sound of ceramic - it was not as useful as cash, but tokens could be spent at most shops, and a glance told Jiba that it was a 'necessary' class token, tossed casually by a woman wearing indigo blue Scientist robes. "Thank you," he called politely. He expected no reply and received none as she marched off on her business.

This was an excellent corner to hold - right close to the licensing office and all of the varied traffic that attracted. A good mix of people went by, and citizens high in guilds or sciences had much to prove about their generosity to the lower classes, while the lower classes liked to prove that they had means enough to help a poor waif. The Empire licensed shared housing to him, of course, but the people kept him in a lifestyle that would have astounded most of them if they knew.

By the end of the lunch hour, after the afternoon bell sent most workers back to their jobs, Jiba had tucked a solid collection of tokens and coins - even several high-denomination Imperials! - into the various pockets of his sturdy jacket.

"You clink," Olyen said, when he appeared at the back door of the slophouse on his crutches. The cleft lip that marred her face did not make it as unattractive as the scowl did.

"Ran out of pockets," Jiba said with a crooked grin. "Good weather for it, today." A cloudy day like this was perfect - not so cold and miserable that it made begging uncomfortable, but not so warm that it looked easy and comfortable.

"Got your dues, then?" Olyen held out one hand, the fingers gnarled by deformity into a claw. Jiba dropped a handful of high-value tokens and several Imperials into it, and Olyen stepped aside to let him in.

The slophouse itself was nothing to look at - just the kind of place you'd expect to see a few cripples without spending credits. Jiba nodded to a few familiar faces, and spryly used his crutches to navigate the deliberately shallow steps up to the second floor, where the rooms known to the Empire's unwanted as the 'Unguild' waited for those who paid their dues.

It was warm inside, and three musicians were filling the wide room with quiet, ethereal songs. You would not guess to look at them that one was blind and one nearly so. One of the two visually impaired, Mirbai, was playing a pair of ceramic jars, dipping fingers into a pool of water to rub a tuned hum out of the vessels. Reira puffed into the mouthpiece of a talv, making breathy notes that blended into each other. Each bottle was filled to produce a specific sound and he was able to mix them with a carefully placed mouth.

Oriraa was nodding her head in aphonic counterpart to the music she was hammering on an open-stringed tinamoln, a vacant look in her eyes that indicated a mental slowness.

The music they made would never have been accepted to the Music Guild; it wandered without purpose or restricted style, only sometimes returning to a shared melody. Jiba found that it was not entirely displeasing to the ears, and there were moments of triumphant beauty.

Raark waved him over to one of the wide, oval tables on the other side of the room and Jiba settled into a comfortable plush chair across from him. "Have a good sit?"

Jiba nodded, leaning his crutches beside him. "Good enough," he said, with the practiced look of melancholy and wistfulness. Then he grinned, breaking the illusion.

Raark laughed. "The Theatre Guild only wishes they'd gotten their mitts on you," he said, with some envy.

"Too good for the Theatre Guild," Jiba said casually, not willing to admit how much their rejection had hurt.

Raark's voice took a note of cynicism. "Probably, you are." He had worked in the Theatre Guild - a set-builder who didn't have the talents to be an actor, until an accident had damaged his hand and right arm beyond recovery. The Guild, with polite regret, had relicensed him as crippled, and removed him from their payroll. When Raark had asked to be involved as a volunteer, they shut the doors on him; a cripple's place in the Empire was to be cared for. It was too difficult for the theatre to adjust to Raark's specific needs, they said. And so, they didn't.

Raark pretended it didn't matter, just as Reira and Mirbai pretended that it didn't matter that the Music Guild wouldn't take them. Oriraa probably didn't care; she couldn't hold a thought in her head long enough to have a conversation, and as long as you didn't touch her too quickly and let her play music, she didn't mind who wouldn't stamp licenses for her performances.

Jiba let the conversation drop, pulling a pile of blank file cards and an inkplate towards him so he could write out the day's observations. Part of his dues to the Unguild were to carefully watch and make note of important people, and who they spoke with. With practice, he had gotten to the point where he could list several dozen such individually innocuous encounters each day. The Unguild records were a resource beyond equal to someone who knew of them and had the skill and patience to use them.

Jiba rubbed his leg as he wrote, wondering idly where the real stage was. Was it here, in the opulent rooms where they all pretended it didn't bother them that the Empire forgot them, or was it out on the streets, where they pretended it had?

Author's Notes

A result of the August Muse Fusion, prompted by ladyqkat.

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