In the days that followed, Stranger found himself growing uneasy. Not about Cunning or the threat that he represented – enemies were simply a part of life, and Stranger couldn’t remember a time when he could be bothered to be concerned about the probability that someone might be plotting against him. If something came of the slave owner’s enmity, it would, and Stranger would deal with that problem when and if it materialized.
The thing that disturbed his sense of equilibrium, that nagged at his peace of mind and kept him sleepless long past the midnight hour most nights, was something he couldn’t immediately identify, because it was made up of many small pieces. First, and most easily defined as a source of his growing unease, was the boy.
It wasn’t that the newest member of the household was a disturbance. On the contrary, he seemed always to be around whenever Warlike needed help in the daily running of The Rotten Core, and was as likely to offer to do the dishes and swab the floors as he was to take up position behind the bar, serving customers. At night, when the adults gathered around the fire, he took Cherry onto his lap and kept the little girl entertained, and he had taken to joining Warlike in the kitchen, asking questions about the different dishes she prepared, and was learning to help her with the simpler chores, like chopping vegetables and preparing the different ingredients.
One night, after the children had gone to bed and Hopeful had returned to her own, small house in the Mixer part of the city, Stranger and Warlike had gone upstairs, and found the door to Cherry’s room standing open. In the girl’s small bed, both kids had been curled up, and Stranger had stopped in the doorway to look at them.
“They sleep like that every night”, Warlike said quietly, stopping beside him. “I told him that Cherry has been afraid of sleeping on her own, and asked if he would sleep with her.”
Stranger turned and cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Really? You adopted her three years ago, and I can’t remember you ever telling me she had any trouble getting to sleep by herself.”
Warlike gave him the self-satisfied smirk that meant she thought she had been particularly clever.
“Oh, she doesn’t. But the first couple of nights the boy stayed here, I found him curled up at the back of his closet when I went in to wake him.” Her smile faded, and her eyes took on the far-away cast of someone remembering a nightmare. “I was a slave, once. I remember what it was like to know you aren’t safe in your own room at night.”
Stranger put an arm around her and said nothing. He, too, knew what it was like not to feel safe. When he was on a job, he routinely slept with his weapons within touching distance, their cold, hard steel the only bedfellow he’d ever trusted. Warlike leaned into him, and her lithe, warm weight against his side reminded them both that they were not alone. She continued:
“I thought another warm body might be proof against nightmares. I guess I was right.”
“I guess you were. And it was a good idea, telling him it’s for Cherry’s sake. He seems to like her, for all his complaining about her getting underfoot.”
“You gave Cherry a big brother when you brought him home, and I know how it is with brothers. Overprotective, and the gods forbid you ever admit to weakness. If that boy knew that I wanted him to sleep with Cherry because I thought he was afraid, he’d have rather collapsed from sleep deprivation. This way, he gets to think of himself as her new protector. Let’s allow him to keep his pride, hmm?”
For the sake of his own pride, Stranger decided not to think too closely on this matter-of-fact declaration of sisterly insight, or ponder how often Warlike and Hopeful found it necessary to use it on him.
But the conversation made him pay more attention to the boy, and when he did, he noticed he was always smiling. Whether he was serving customers, helping Warlike in the kitchen or swabbing the floors, there was a ready smile on his face and he seemed eager to please and eager to be of use. The only time Stranger ever saw a trace of the boy who had picked himself off the ground and followed him back to The Rotten Core with a defiant tilt to his chin and that alert look in his eyes was when he was with Cherry. Then, he would tease and the smiles he gave the little girl were tinged with a hint of wildness. With her, he would wrestle and play, the two of them rolling around on the floor, snarling and nipping at each other in a way that reminded Stranger of the mastiff puppies his father had kept around the palace when he was a boy.
It was the only time when he wasn’t perfectly well-behaved and civilized, and Stranger, who had trained more than a few young men, whose pig-headedness and reckless disregard for danger made them into poor prospects as caravan guards, worried about the boy’s sudden reversal into flawless obedience. It bothered him and one day, when the two of them were outside, tending to Warlike’s vegetables, he decided to bring up the subject.
“Do you like living with us, here at The Rotten Core?”
Beside him, elbows-deep in the moist earth of the greenhouse, the words seemed to cause the boy’s delicate body to freeze. Stranger noticed the hairs on his neck and along his spine quivering slightly, as if wanting to stand on end, but then the boy shrugged, relaxed his muscles and went back to watering the red wengias, which were a staple in the Catharsian kitchen.
“S’okay. Better than living in the brothel. And I like Cherry.”
“Yes, but all you seem to do is work. Don’t you want to, I don’t know, go outside? Make friends, do whatever it is the kids do when they want to have fun around here?”
The boy stared intently at his hands, which kept working through the soil, picking out the parasitic weeds that coiled their roots around the wengias’ stems with nimble efficiency. After a while, he answered:
“I’m good with the customers. They like me. And Warlike says I’m good in the kitchen. She’s saying maybe she can teach me to be a proper chef. I help her.”
“I know you want to help”, Stranger agreed. “But you don’t have to. Warlike has run this place for a long time on her own. She can manage, if there are other things you’d rather be doing.”
The boy’s hands stopped working and he sat back on his heels. He was quiet for a while, his eyes still fixed on his hands, which were damp and grimy with green plant juice and dark brown earth.
“She doesn’t need me.”
The boy’s shoulders slumped, and his voice was low and defeated. Suddenly, Stranger thought he understood why he’d been working so hard, trying to be good, and useful.
“Well, not all the time”, he said, reaching out carefully to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “But you don’t have to be useful, kid. We want you with us, and it’s not because we need someone to work in the kitchen. You don’t have to be needed, and you don’t have to be nice all the time. We want you to be happy. And we want you to feel like you can be yourself around us. We won’t kick you out if you aren’t perfect all the time.”
The shoulder beneath his hand had been hot, and tense as steel wire, but it relaxed gradually as Stranger kept talking and after a while, the boy turned his head to look at him. The defiant tilt to his chin was one that Stranger recognized, and had missed.
“You sure? Because when I thought you were trying to ask me to leave, you know what my first instinct was?”
Stranger smiled, feeling, as always, the tug of his scar as it constricted the left side of his face, twisting the expression into a crooked line.
“What was that?”
“I was going to ask if you’d change your mind if I offered to suck your cock.”
Stranger felt his smile stiffen on his face, and a silent voice at the back of his head mocked him: Well, you did say you wanted him to be himself. He could see the same words floating in the boy’s half amused, half challenging expression and was trying to figure out what to say, when Warlike’s voice drifted in from outside, in the garden:
“That’s nice”, she said, “but if I hear you use language like that around the customers or, gods forbid, around Cherry, I’ll swat you so hard you won’t stop seeing stars for a moon’s turning. You got that?”
The boy’s eyes grew wide and he blushed a deep, dark red. His spine straightened and he called out, as well-trained as any young caravan guard Stranger had ever seen:
“Good. Now, where are my gods damned wengias?”
Click here to go to Chapter 8!