(Show/Hide Browsing Column ->)
The boy was holding a paper butterfly, but he wasn't playing; only holding the butterfly as if he didn't know what to do with it. He had a shock of curly dark hair, and pale golden skin. Sunlight filtering into the private courtyard made him squint at Bai.
"Hello," Bai said. "What's that you have there?"
He looked old enough for the second or third year of first form, round child's face just beginning to show the distinctive features of Ibabesh blood he clearly carried, and he squinted at Bai in fearless curiosity. "It's only paper," he said defensively.
Bai squatted, and inwardly cursed the fact that it was going to be hard to stand back up. Maybe Rai was right about laying off of the sweetcakes. "That's not just paper," he said with exaggerated awe. "That's a butterfly."
The boy looked at it with reserve, unconvinced. "So?"
Bai frowned, puzzled by the boy's rudeness. Even in the first year of schooling, he should have been taught more politeness towards a man of his rank. By this point in a conversation, he should have introduced himself and asked for Bai's name and rank. "Butterflies are good luck," he explained gently. "Especially with money. My name is Bai."
"That's a funny hat." His dark eyes stared at it.
"It's a very special hat," Bai said, not disagreeing. "This hat means you can ask me any question you'd like." He took it off so that the boy could look closer at it. It was an archaic design, straight-sided and pure white, though it had a more modern white-embroidered band across the bottom, and two jaunty white feathers that weren't traditional.
"Can I ask you any question?" The boy made no move to touch the hat.
"Uh uh," Bai said chidingly, with a sideways wink. "You can't ask the questions unless the hat is on my head." He put it back on, making a show of settling it in his thinning hair.
The boy smiled cautiously back, then asked, "Any question? You'll answer all of them?"
The boy considered. "Why are butterflies good luck?"
Bai blinked. "I don't know. Maybe the flutter of their wings reminded someone of the sound of flipping through a good stack of licenses once?"
"How do trains run?"
"They run on coal," Bai said confidently.
"How does coal push a train?"
"Well, it doesn't exactly push it," Bai floundered. "It burns, and creates steam and pushes levers and... there's a... boiler. I'm not sure I really remember exactly how it works. An engineer could tell you all about it, of course."
The boy frowned, clearly unimpressed. "How does water get into the pipes at my house?"
When Bai tried to explain that and failed equally, the boy asked, "Why does wild grass stop growing when it's waist high instead of growing up into the sky like a tree does?"
Bai had to laugh then, and simply admit, "I don't know. You're supposed to ask me questions I would be able to answer."
With skepticism, the boy asked, "What can you answer?"
"I know a lot about licenses, and history, and money." Bai pointed to the insignia on his sleeveless robe. "This means I specialize in finances and licenses." When the boy inspected it curiously, he added, "Because my robe is this dark blue, it means I'm a Scientist. See the design on my buttons?"
The boy squinted close - not short-sighted, but curious. "It's a butterfly!" he exclaimed.
Bai nodded. "A butterfly and a sheaf of wheat, with a sun in the background. That means that I work in the city licensing bureau, and the sun means I'm in charge of it."
"You're important." The boy seemed impressed for the first time.
"Yes I am," Bai answered with no modesty. "Now it's my turn for a question!"
The boy turned wary in a tenthtick and didn't answer.
"It's an easy question," Bai promised. "What's your name?"
"I'm not supposed to talk to people," he said sullenly, unexpectedly, and he pulled sharply at the cuffs of his shirt - but not before Bai could see the dark print of his license tattoo, and the very un-tattoo-like smudge it had left up his arm.
Bai was silent in surprise. Unlicensed! There might be a child or two found a year in his city, but they were generally babies, toddlers at the oldest. Sometimes, there was a distraught mother demanding the proper forms, wailing and tearing at her hair while she begged for mercy. Unlicensed children were the worst part of Bai's job - one he was happy usually only passed his desk in the shape of stack of forms that required extra scrutiny. It wasn't as hard to sign the papers if you didn't have a face to associate the sentence to.
An unlicensed boy of this age was unexpected at best, and Bai's heart wrenched for him. How could he explain to this boy, so thirsty for knowledge, that he was unlikely to ever go to school, that even living here in Empire housing, using Empire resources, was a breach of law? Unlicensed, he would never have access to a library so he could research himself how a train ran, or why grass only grew knee high. Even in their short acquaintance, the boy's brightness was clear - but his handicap was clearer.
If Bai had not seen the smudged license mark, the boy's lack of social polish, combined with this woman's stark terror, might have clued him into the situation. She was an older woman, white twining in her dark Ibabesh curls, and her dark eyes were huge with fright. "Amaroin," she said again, achingly. She, at least, showed recognition for Bai's tabard.
"Citizen," he greeted her, politely.
"Citizen," she returned, with a quick bob of her head. Amaroin, more sullen than before, slunk behind her. "He is... ah... visiting us," she explained, too quickly. "From Affibabesh. I hope he has been polite," she added desperately. Her voice was thick with accent - Bai guessed she had grown up a Purist. At the very least, it was likely her parents had.
"Very polite," Bai lied back, creaking back up from his crouch with less than the expected difficulty. He caught Amaroin's look of surprise from behind the woman's skirt. "I hope that he is enjoying his stay. Has he been to see the outdoor gardens yet?"
Amaroin's eyes grew larger.
The woman looked too frightened to respond. She was, Bai decided, too old to be the boy's mother - the lines of her face looked well-earned by the years. "I would like to take him," he said jovially. "He will be here tomorrow at this time?" It was an impulsive offer, impulsively given, and Bai knew why the woman hesitated to answer. "I will be here at noon," he said, making it no longer a request.
He was bound to turn the child in. The law required it of him. Unlicensed, the child had not been properly vaccinated, and at the very least was a health hazard to the community. There was no reason he shouldn't shout for the monitors right now, and haul the boy away. It was a wonder he hadn't already... but Bai could not look at Amaroin's hopeful face and knowingly thrust a life of the unlicensed upon him.
He had to, he reminded himself. There was no choice in the matter. He was giving them a day to say goodbye to each other, that was all, and dignity in their parting, and he could take the boy to the outdoor gardens first - why not? The woman was already weeping, wringing her hands and clinging to Amaroin, who looked confused.
Bai made polite noises and left the courtyard swiftly, thoroughly unsettled.