Grief is the wage of good deeds, Stranger thought, looking down at the cross by his feet. He was standing on a sandy hill on an overcast day. His long, black duster and the scarf he had wrapped around his head and face to protect him from the desert’s moods flapped around him. From a distance, the entire scene was a uniform shade of dust.
In front of him in the sand, a rough, cross-shaped marker was halfway buried, but the letters that had been carefully carved in the stone were still legible. They read, quite simply:
It was three years earlier that Stranger walked into Colony Five to visit his family, and walked out having rescued a stray. That time, he had come with the demons of the desert on his heels, and though the sandstorm had not yet gained its full, murderous momentum, he was met by closed shutters and empty streets when he strode into town.
The desolation was an improvement on the place, if Stranger’s memory served, and it usually did. Like most Mixer cities, Colony Five was an unwelcoming corner of civilization, run down and full of crime, hostility and filth. If it weren’t for Hopeful and Warlike, who had taken a liking to the spot, and decided to stay there, it was the least likely place for Stranger to choose, to while away the days of his leave.
He rounded a corner, confident he knew where he was going despite the dusty, suffocating sheets of sand that rolled through the air, destroying visibility and creating the illusion of humanoid shapes that seemed to ghost down the streets, carried by the screaming fury of the winds that had birthed them. The first time Stranger had seen one, he had regretted ever having mocked his family’s Sixer servants for believing the storms to be carrying desert demons. Having now spent years working as a trail finder and caravan guard, he wasn’t entirely sure, anymore, that the ancient Sixer beliefs didn’t have the right of it, although few, even among the Sixers, held with the Faith anymore.
In front of him, out of the dust, a red light shone dully and though he couldn’t make out the sign, Stranger remembered it from his mental map of Colony Five landmarks. It was a drinking establishment and a brothel and, what was far more distasteful to Stranger, it was well-known for keeping slaves. The sign was nevertheless a welcome sight, as it confirmed he was on the right street, and Stranger braced against the quickening wind, increasing his pace. When he had almost drawn even with the brothel’s door, it was suddenly thrown open, and a small shape tumbled out, rolling across the street in a shamble of flailing limbs, the long band of its tail spinning wildly through the air behind it.
“And don’t come back, you worthless little waste of good food!”
The voice came from the open door, in the low growl Sixer vocal chords tended to make of the trade tongue, and then the door slammed shut without any further comment. As partings went, Stranger thought, the words and the slammed door couldn’t, at least, be faulted for indecision. In contrast, there was Stranger himself, looking down at the shivering, crumpled heap at his feet, knowing he should walk away, but for some reason finding himself unable to do so. The despair written in every line of the trembling form was pathetic and if Stranger just left the boy here, he would surely be dead by tomorrow.
No great loss, most would say. No one missed Mixer city trash or at least, no one that mattered. Stranger scratched the back of his head and let out a grumbling sound, somewhere between a sigh and a grunt.
“You, boy”, he said. “Can you walk?”
The crimson-haired head tipped back, revealing a gaunt face with huge, yellow eyes and wickedly pointed teeth and Stranger estimated that, although he was in the Sixer part of town, the boy was at most half Sixer. What the other half was, aside from a dash of human, Stranger wouldn’t venture to guess, and it didn’t matter. Like most of the part human mongrels, this kid was a man-made toy, tossed aside when it failed to meet requirements, or maybe just because his owner grew tired of looking at his pretty face. There were all sorts of ways for a young boy to end up a slave in a Mixer city brothel, and few of them made for a comfortable retelling.
The boy stared up at Stranger, his eyes narrowed in suspicion that tried to look like defiance and almost made it. It was a good look. Not a happy look, but a look that spoke favorably for the kid’s chances at survival. In a place like Colony Five, survival was as close to a good thing as you were ever likely to get.
“‘Course I can walk”, the boy said. “So?”
“Walk”, Stranger advised, turning away without further words of encouragement. He walked on without turning to see if the boy was following along behind him. He would, or he wouldn’t. Stranger didn’t care one way or the other. Except, if he didn’t care, why had he given the boy the option to follow?
“Getting soft in my old age”, Stranger murmured to himself, a smile tugging experimentally at one corner of his mouth. The other corner, the left one, was frozen in a stiff line, surrounded by scar tissue too deep and too badly healed to allow for much movement on that side of his face. Stranger’s was a hard, ugly mug, a fitting advertisement for a man best known for hard, ugly deeds, and grown men, hardened criminals, had been known to wet themselves at the sight of it.
But his face didn’t seem to bother the boy, Stranger noted, when a sideways glance showed him that the kid had gathered the courage to slink up beside him. His shoulders were hunched, but his chin was held stubbornly high, speaking of a spirit unbroken. The boy had courage.
Good. The way his life looked to be heading, he was certainly going to need it.
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