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Authors: Jo; Clayton

A Bait of Dreams

BOOK: A Bait of Dreams
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A Bait of Dreams

Jo Clayton

A Bait of Dreams

Jo Clayton

FIRST SUMMER'S TALE

A Bait of Dreams

As Gleia hurried along the uneven planks of the walkway, pattering around the bodies of sleeping drunks, slipping past workmen and market women, Horli's red rim bathed the street in blood-red light, painting a film of charm over the façades of the sagging buildings.

She glanced up repeatedly, fearing to see the blue light of the second sun Hesh creeping into the sky. Late. Her breath came raggedly as she tried to move faster. She knocked against people in the crowded street, drawing curses after her.

Late. Nothing had gone right this morning. When Horli's light had crept through the holes in her torn shade and touched her face, one look at the clock sent her into a panic, kicking the covers frantically aside, tearing her nightgown over her head. No time to eat. No time to discipline her wild hair. She dragged a comb through the worst of the tangles as she splashed water into a basin. No time to straighten the mess in the room. She slapped water on her face, gasping at the icy sting.

Rush. Grab up the rent money. Snatch open the wardrobe door and pull out the first cafta that came to hand. Slip feet into sandals. A strap breaks. With half-swallowed curse, dig out the old sandals with soles worn to paper thinness. Rush. Drop the key chain around her neck. Hip strikes a chair, knocking it over. Ah! No time to pick it up. Plunge from the room, pausing only to make sure the lock catches. Even in her feverish hurry she could feel nausea at the thought of old Miggela's fat greasy fingers prodding through her things again.

Clatter down the stairs. Down the creaking groaning spiral, fourth floor to ground floor. Nod the obligatory greeting to the blunt-snouted landlady who came out from her nest where she sat in ambush day and night.

The sharp salty breeze whipped through the dingy side street, surrounding her with its burden of fish, tar, exotic spices, and the sour stench from the scavengers' piles of scrap and garbage. The smells slid by unnoticed as she ran down the wooden walk, her footsteps playing a nervous tattoo on the planks. As she turned onto the larger main street, she glanced up again. Hesh still hadn't joined Horli in the sky. Thank the Madar. Still a little time left. She could get to the shop before Hesh-rise.

Her foot came down hard on a round object. It rolled backward, throwing her. She staggered. Her arms flung wildly out, then she fell forward onto the planks, her palms tearing as she tried to break her fall, her knees tearing even through the coarse cloth of her cafta.

For a minute, she stayed on hands and knees, ignoring the curious eyes of the workers flowing past her. Several stopped to ask if she was hurt. But she shook her head, her dark brown hair hanging about her face, hiding it from them. They shrugged, then went on, leaving her to recover by herself.

Still on her knees, she straightened her body and examined her palms. The skin was broken and abraded. Already she could feel her hands stiffening. She brushed the grit off, wincing at the pain. Then she looked around to find the thing that had brought her down. A crystal pebble was caught in one of the wider cracks between the planks. Shaped like an egg, it was just big enough to fit in the palm of her hand. “A Ranga Eye,” she whispered.

Blue Hesh slid over the edge of the roof above her, reflecting in the crystal. Gleia looked cautiously around, then thrust the Eye into her pocket and jumped to her feet, wincing at the pain that stabbed up from her battered knees. Limping, she hurried on toward the center of the city.

“You're late.” Habbiba came fluttering through the lines of bent backs, her tiny hands thrusting out of the sleeves of her elegant black velvet cafta like small pale animals. Her dark eyes darted from side to side, scanning the girls as she moved.

Gleia sucked in a breath, then lowered her head submissively. She knew better than to try to excuse herself.

Habbiba stopped in front of her, moving her hands constantly over herself, patting her hair, stroking her throat, touching her mouth with small feathery pats. “Well?”

Gleia stretched out her hands, showing the lacerated palms. “I fell.”

Habbiba shuddered. “Go wash.” She flicked a hand at the wall clock. “You'll make up the time by working through lunch.”

Gleia bit her lip. She could feel the emptiness groaning inside her and a buzzing in her head, a tremble in her knees. She wanted to protest but didn't dare.

“Go. Go.” Habbiba fluttered hands at her. “Don't touch the wedding cafta with those filthy hands and don't waste more time.”

As Gleia went into the dark noisome washroom, she heard the soft voice lashing first one then another. She made a face and muttered, “Bitch.” The falling curtain muted the poisonous tongue.

Hastily Gleia scrubbed at her hands, ignoring the sting of the coarse soap. She dried them on the towel, the only clean thing in the room. Clean because a filthy towel might lead to filthy hands which could damage the fine materials the girls worked on. Not for the workers, nothing ever done for the workers. She felt the crystal bang against her thigh as she turned to move out, felt a brief flare of excitement, but there was no time and she forgot it immediately.

She slid into her place and took up her work, settling the candles so the light fell more strongly on the cloth. White on white, a delicate pattern of fantasy flowers and birds.

Habbiba's shadow fell over the work. “Hands.”

Gleia held out her hands. Small thumbs pressed hard on the drying wounds.

“Good. No blood.” Habbiba's hand flew to the shimmering white material protected from dust and wear by a sheath of coarse unbleached muslin. “Slow.” A finger jabbed at the incomplete sections, flicking over the pricked-out design. “I must have it done by tomorrow. A two-drach fine for each hour you take over that.” Her shadow moved off as she darted away to scold one of the girls who was letting her candle gutter.

Gleia caught her breath, a hard frustration squeezing her in the middle. Tomorrow? Sinking her teeth in her lower lip, she blinked back tears. She'd been counting on the money Habbiba had promised her for this work. Twenty-five oboli. Enough to finish off the sum she needed to buy her bond, even to pay the bribes and leave a little over to live on. Now … She looked around the cavernous room with the misty small lights flickering over bent heads. She stiffened. Damn her, she thought. I'll finish this on time if it kills me.

Resolutely she banished all distraction and bent over the work, her stiffened fingers slowing her until the exercise warmed them to their usual suppleness.

As the band of embroidery crept along the front panels of the cafta, Gleia felt hungry, her stomach paining almost as if she were poisoned, but that went away after a while.

While she sewed, her mind began to drift though her eyes clung tenaciously to the design. In a painful reverie, she relived brief images of her life, tracking the thread of events that had led her to this place at this moment.…

First memories. Pain and fear. Dim images of adult faces. A woman's arms clinging to her, then falling away. A man, face blurred, unrecognizable, shouting angrily, then in pain, then not at all. Then a string of faces that came and went like beads falling from a cheap necklace. Then … digging in garbage piles outside kitchen doors, fighting the scavengers—small shaggy creatures with filthy hands and furtive eyes—for scraps of half-rotten vegetables or bones with a shred of meat left on them.

Habbiba came back, jerked the work from her hands and examined it closely. “Sloppy,” she grunted. She held the work so long Gleia clenched her hands into fists, biting her lip till blood came to hold back the protest that would spoil all her chances of finishing the cafta on time.

A smile curled Habbiba's small tight mouth into a wrinkled curve, then Habbiba thrust the material back at her. “Take more care, bonder, or I'll have you rip the whole out.”

Gleia watched her move on. For a minute she couldn't unclench her fingers. She wants me to go overtime. She wants to make me beg. Damn her damn her damn.…

After a minute she took up the work again, driving the needle through the fabric with a vicious energy that abated after a while as the soothing spell of the work took over. Once again she fell into the swift loose rhythm that freed her mind to think of other things.

Begging in the streets, running with packs of other abandoned children, sleeping in abandoned houses, or old empty warehouses, barely escaping with her life from a fire that took twenty other children, wandering the streets, driven by cold back into the houses where the only heat was the body heat of the children sleeping in piles where some on the outside froze and some on the inside smothered, children dying in terrible numbers in the winter, only the toughest surviving.

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