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The late clock rang.
Rai lifted his head in surprise. Though he couldn't see any of the clocks -- or much at all beyond arm's reach -- he could hear them clearly. When his brother Bai invited him out for dinner, which they shared at least once a month, they usually heard that clock from a restaurant. The clock at the Licensing Office, which ran on time, had rung a tentick ago. Bai should have come down the steps by now. Something must have gone wrong.
With a sigh, Rai headed inside. He flicked his staff against the marble steps to find the way, then counted the doors to his brother's office. "Bai? You didn't come outside as usual; I got worried. What's going on?"
"Someone cleaned my desk," Bai said. From the sound of his voice, the License Master was still in his chair clear across the room.
"No wonder you didn't come down for dinner," said Rai, moving to his brother's side. He casually trailed a hand along the wooden surface and, indeed, found it quite empty. Not even the lamp remained in its proper place, instead making a shadowy silhoutte against the bright window.
Bai surveyed his pristine desk and whimpered.
Rai manfully suppressed the desire to giggle, and instead made sympathetic noises. "I'm sure it was -- well, not an accident, but accidental damage," said Rai, patting his brother's shoulder.
"I had everything organized," Bai said in a small voice.
"Of course you did," Rai said. It was true. Bai always had a system, no matter how chaotic it seemed to other people. Rai didn't need familiarity with this particular office to know that much. Clearing off that desk probably undid a tenday's worth of work. Rai had learned that back in their school days. He never messed with Bai's stuff. Which rather raised the question ... "How did this happen, Bai?"
"Someone in the Licensing Office hates me," Bai said morosely. "They sent the new girl in to clean."
"She certainly did that." The room reeked of citrus cleanser. It made Rai grateful that he didn't have to come in here often.
Bai whimpered again. Rai made more soothing gestures.
"History save me from servants with delusions of competence," Bai went on. "This girl, she barely scraped through second form, and she thinks she ought to be a clerk."
"Well, she seems meticulous enough, but a real clerk would know to check the task parameters before starting," Rai said. "Don't you still have a sign that says Do not clean this desk ...?"
"She probably threw that away too," said Bai.
"I doubt she threw away much ... well, maybe your crumpled-up rough drafts," said Rai.
"I don't even know where she put my paperweights," said Bai.
Rai winced. Bai had used coded paperweights to organize his pages since second form, when the homewriting started to get dense. "Have you checked in your desk drawers?" asked Rai.
"No. I haven't really searched for anything," Bai admitted. "I just came in here, saw this disaster, and sort of went into shock."
"All right, I'll help you sort things out. Check your desk drawers first. If the silly girl hasn't completely lost her brain license, she would have put durable items like paperweights and pens in there somewhere."
Wood whispered against wood as Bai pulled the drawers open. "Yes, here, she put the paperweights in my stationery drawer. Pens too, but I don't see my pen glass anywhere."
"Are you using a good one, or one with a chipped rim?" Rai asked. Bai had a habit of reusing dinged glasses for that purpose. Rai nicked himself on them often enough to remember.
"Yes. I like that glass. It has the palest shade of blue, like a winter sky..."
"Check your wastebin," Rai suggested.
"It's empty. That is actually the one place I looked before I collapsed into my chair," said Bai.
Rai sighed. This late in the day, the evening pickup had doubtless passed by already, so anything the cleaning girl had thrown out was gone forever. "Put your paperweights back where they belong. Get your lamp off the windowsill, too. We'll find you another pen glass later," Rai said. "Meanwhile, let's start going through your files and try to find all the papers she put away."
The lamp clicked softly against the smooth wood as Bai set it on his desk. "Are you sure you don't mind? This isn't the evening at a nice restaurant that I promised you," he said.
Rai trailed a finger over Bai's hand. "I'm sure. I may not be able to read the pages, but I can put things back in their stacks when you hand them to me," said Rai. His fingers remembered the shapes of all Bai's paperweights. Half of them came as gifts from Rai anyway. "Now, what were you working on? Even a scribe must have filed at least some of them in sensible places."
"Child licenses, alcohol permits, the stack of appeals alone was elbow-deep ..." Bai said.
"First the worst," Rai advised. "Then it's all downstairs from there."
"I'll open the appeals cabinet first, then," said Bai. The drawer runners squeaked as he did so.
"You need to oil that thing," said Rai. "Does it always make so much noise? You must get in there a dozen times a day. How can you stand that racket every time you open the drawer?"
"The cleaners are supposed to keep the hardware oiled, but they don't always do it," Bai said. "If they forget, it only takes a tenday or two before the paper dust gets down in there and makes them squeak like that."
"I think the noise would drive me bankrupt," said Rai.
"Sometimes I feel that way too," said Bai. "Here, I found the appeal papers for this marriage I have to reject. No sign of my notes for it, though, and I hope by all that is licensed she didn't throw those out!"
Rai took the slim sheaf of papers and set them under the marble skykitten with the pleading eyes. Then he went to the door while Bai searched the next drawer. "Urti?" called Rai.
"Yes?" the man said as he came over. "What are you still doing in -- oh, Bai, your desk!"
"As you see, we're trying to undo the damage from an overzealous cleaning girl," Rai said with a wave of his hand.
"I'll help," Urti offered.
"Actually, I meant to ask if you would send a messenger out for a boxed supper. I expect this to take quite a while," said Rai.
"I found another page!" Bai exclaimed. "This one covers an accidental pregnancy, very sad case."
"A page?" Urti said. "What a mess. I'll go place that order for you. I know some of Bai's favorite foods -- unless you want something different?"
"That will be fine, thank you," said Rai.
* * *
As dawn began to lighten the sky through Bai's big glass windows, the License Master handed an envelope to his brother. "That's it, Rai," he said. "I finished searching the final cabinet."
Urti snored intermittently from where he had fallen asleep against the low, wide sill of the windows. When it first happened, Bai just chuckled and said that Urti tended to sneak naps during his break time on a busy day, or during all-night projects like this, though the man refused to believe that he snored.
Rai slipped the envelope under the brass gazelle that held down a stack of messages. "You didn't find everything, did you," he murmured.
"Not quite everything, no," Bai said. "Someone here hates me."
"You keep saying that," Rai observed quietly. "Are you just complaining, or do you have reason to think that's really true?"
"I don't know," Bai said. Then he yawned loudly. "I'll have to think about it later, when I'm actually awake."
"Good idea," said Rai as he gave a yawn of his own. Urti snuffled and shifted his position on the windowsill.
"Thank you for helping," Bai said.
"You're welcome," said Rai. "Look on the sealed side, though."
"There is a sealed side to this?" Bai said.
Rai chuckled. "Yes ... now you have an ear-witness to the fact that Urti snores during his catnaps!"
This story came out of the May 2011 Muse Fusion. It was prompted and sponsored by Facebook user Edward Cammarota.