A Story of Uncertain Depths
“Tell me what we know of our new guest Auf Dregade.” Fersch Auf Manich, general of the ship, leaned back in his chair as another rush of red wine went down his throat.
“Her name is Polla Vertis, she claims she is at least 17 years of age. She says the last thing she remembers is being with her family in West Polmay, some town along the coast. She says she was taken away from her family to cover her father’s debts but managed to escape on that boat almost a fortnight ago.” Auf Dregade could tell by the silence that followed, his general was still unconvinced.
“Question her again. She’s hiding something. Has a report gone out to the home station about this?”
“Not unless we find that by tomorrow’s eve, there is nothing to report.”
“Min Fersch.” Auf Dregade made a small bow of the head and exited the cabin. In that moment, had anyone been able to look him in the eye they would have seen a shimmer of satisfaction.
General Fab Manich continued divulging in wine, glass after glass, as he stared into nothing. The room with all its official trinkets and instruments blurred. Images of a different time fluttered through his mind until he drifted off.
She swallowed the last of the food, then began running her fingers across the plate to get at the juice and tidbits.
“There is no need for that. Would you like more food?” The offer came from the guard instructed to supervise her. She nodded, not meeting his eye. When he turned away, she watched him silently point to a cook and gesture towards her. Shortly after, another plate was placed in front of her and the other taken away. Her hunger was larger than her apprehension, she began to eat again, this time with less ferocity. She could feel eyes watching her as she sat there. Not quite understanding why, she felt a sense of shame.
Back in Ernos, she had spent most of her life in the Kipona Orphanage run by the Green Ladies of the Great Lord. The Green Ladies were stern-faced yet saintly and seemed to glide as they walked. Their deep green uniforms flowing in silent ripples as they strode to and from rooms, down halls. She was sure that however briefly, she had known the warmth of her mother but had no image in her memory as evidence. From a small babe into her womanhood, it was a Green Lady who taught to her to read, write, and make numbers, stitch and clean, cook and serve. Every lesson led by a Green Lady, each with her own way of instilling a sense of fear. Each morning, small chimes signaled the rising sun and the beginning of the day’s work which always started with salutations to the Great Lord. Every few hours, different chimes signaled either meal time, another lesson, afternoon prayer and meditation, or a cleaning shift. Some chimes were slow and high pitched, others were fast and high or fast and low. The use of a switch made learning the meaning of the chimes easy, no one wanted a beating or even a warning swipe.
The orphanage was part of a larger cathedral with wings of rooms separating children by age and gender. Younger children and babes in one wing, young women and older girls in another. The boys residing in the opposite wing. Girls and boys would only see or interact with one another during the cleaning shifts where apples and cheese slices could be exchanged in secret between girls cleaning in the kitchens who liked boys carrying in dirty dishes or new food supplies. Small smiles and quick winks went unnoticed during prayer hours, shared between friends or those who desired to be more than friends.
The orphanage had been her home for 13 years. The age of 14 marked adulthood and you were presented at the Bid for Good Works in the courtyard along with the other 14 year olds, boys and girls alike. The Bid for Good Works was a way for the orphanage to request donations in exchange for the young labor they offered by the dozen. It was also the only way to accommodate for the constant number of young children left at the cathedral doorstep year after year. The wealthier families could offer up more generous bags of coin for several young men and women to replace their aging labor. Merchant families would offer free or discounted goods from other countries or cities in exchange for one or two laborers. If a child came into their 15th year without an offer, they were sold to the streets for free. Children whose new family didn’t quite like their work found other places to abandon them. There was an unspoken agreement that any new labor which turned up in a factory, sewer, plant, plantation, fishing dock or brothel was overlooked. Children who went missing were never truly searched for by the city’s policing force. Before her 15th year, she had no knowledge of this silent system. The more developed young women and fit young men were swiftly claimed. The adept workers were claimed after – no need to be strong or pretty if your head was to remain down and your presence not made known. She did not appear strong, and by Ernosian standards, was very plain to the eye. She was not skilled with her hands. She was not very clever with letters or numbers.
Two days after coming into her 15th year, she stood at the iron wrought gates clinging a pouch holding a single garment and two coins. Peering up at the spiked point of the cathedral protruding forever into the sky, she felt small and her legs felt weak. Fear of the unknown which lay beyond the stone walls behind her kept her feet planted, eyes fixed upward. She had purposely traded in cleaning favors for extra food during meal times so that she could save her coins for when the hunger truly gripped her. That was as far as she had been able to plan. Slowly her gaze was brought downward, and she willed her feet to move. If she could go back to that day, she would have tried harder to get the coins needed for a one way sail to West Polmay.
When she finally stepped into the streets, as she walked down towards the city center, she had felt eyes on her that day. Did those eyes know she was another rejected orphan? Did those eyes mean her harm?
Fear has a way of driving a person into desperation. A lesson she would eventually learn and yet, here again she sat.