I have written SO MUCH for this project in years past — back before I’d thoroughly workshopped my plot, back before I’d even thought of many of the more important plot/theme elements; back when it was really just a setting and an assortment of characters bonking into each other and angsting their way toward something resembling a plot.
Here’s a scene from the cutting room floor: Victor’s original introduction. Enough has changed since I wrote it that, as a scene, it no longer fits — but there’s lots I still like about it and hope to reuse in some way. I think it does a decent job at implying the cultural setting, and the style and tone feel pretty close to what I’ve since consciously settled on, which is reassuring, and the characters and their personalities have remained consistent (except the broker, but who cares, he’s a throwaway character for expository purposes).
I spent my writing time this weekend pulling apart my plot so I could put it back together again (there was too much macguffin hot-potato and it was contrived and confusing, i thought) so I haven’t got any new prose for you (yet). I will soon. Meantime, here’s this.
Ghavan and Tedis left the truck parked and the dog dozing in the empty sunlit truck bed.
Tedis’ shoulders and back ached from wrestling crate after crate out of the back of her Papa’s truck. She hadn’t dropped a single one, but she had certainly pushed herself too hard in the process. The attractive young man from the hotel’s front desk had been watching them unload and the effort of pretending to be more graceful than she was had nearly wrenched one shoulder out of joint. She felt stupid. She stretched her sore back as she walked with her Papa down Green Street.
The office of the Green Street broker was a narrow brick afterthought, no more than the tight space between buildings filled up with masonry. It would have been easy to miss but that the door was painted a bright green to match every other door in Green Street. The copper plaque above the latch was polished and gleaming.
Inside smelled faintly of tobacco. A flowering plant curled elegantly around the edges of its pot under the window, but its flowers were past and two of them lay wilted and flattening on the brick floor. Shelves behind the narrow counter were stuffed full of yellowing papers. A radio in the corner filled the room with the gentle cadence of indistinct voices – a news program, playing less for the sake of news than for the quality of noise to fill the air.
The bell above the door jingled as Tedis and her father entered. A man seated behind the counter glanced up. He was hunched over comfortably, a pen in one hand and a sandwich in the other. When he saw and recognized Ghavan, he hastily dropped both and jumped up, sending papers cascading off the counter onto the floor.
“Ah! Ghavan-de-da! Welcome!” he said, jovially throwing his hands into the air.
Ghavan nodded politely and took off his hat.
The broker was a small and balding man in a wrinkled suit who seemed persistently out of breath. He hurried around the counter to pick up his papers, and spied Tedis sitting down on the bench by the potted flower.
“And who is this?” he asked, smiling and waving. The wave disclosed a bruised thumb, as though he’d shut the thing in a door. The smile disclosed an apparent belief that a woman might find him attractive.
“I’m Tedis,” she said to the interior of her bag.
“Indeed! Here to approve the sale? A woman’s approval is the best of luck, as they say, eh!”
“Something like that,” she said. She brushed her fingers over her needlework, changed her mind, and pulled out a book instead.
The broker gave up on her. He turned back to Ghavan and clasped his hands. “Well, as I mentioned, De-da, I have news for you, but it’s not excellent news.”
The broker spread his hands apologetically, but held up a forefinger before he spoke.
“Well – no free applicants.”
Papa leaned on the counter and chewed his lip.
“You see, normally, De-da, I’d have papers on dozens of men wanting such a job,” the broker continued. “You know – young men in between apprenticeships, kids getting started. That’s good simple hands-on work, short term and in the open air; that’s a good job, De-da. It’s not the job that’s the problem, not at all. It’s the times. Things have changed since Andar got that mill going. There’s lots of work in Davspar and Frening, what with the new factories going up every year, it seems.
“And besides, you know these city people! Not many of them want so much travel, or the rough sort of life up there – not that it’s rough, your Tera, of course, De-da!” He laughed. “But you know these city people, right? They like their flat ground and Davspar’s got it.”
“I am not surprised.” Ghavan straightened and sighed. “But you have something to tell me. You recommend Bey work, then?”
“Eh – well – yes. Yes, there you have options, De-da, certainly,” said the broker. He scratched his bald head nervously. “I’ve got papers on many Bey available to rent. Now, De-da – you know I run an honest business, certainly; you’re an honest man yourself and would never be here otherwise. But I must bring up – as a formality, just to be sure we understand each other – I’m sure you know that it’s a different sort of arrangement, a Bey contract. Do you mean to say you’re fully comfortable with …”
“It’s not indenture I have a problem with,” said Ghavan. “It never was. A man’s got to work his way up. I did, myself.”
“Well, of course, De-da. I only feel I must bring up the fact that taking on a Bey – for indenture, as you propose, or indeed in any way at all – is a bit more involved, shall we say. For you, the employer. Especially in this case. Because, De-da, all the Bey I’ve got papers on are either lowborn, De-da, or they are in fact Gazers.”
Ghavan leaned forward slightly. “I’d heard a few Gazers had made it to Jasht,” he said.
“Yes, indeed, De-da,” said the broker, encouraged. “Now, I’m sure you understand that changes things. Of course. But if you’re interested, well, we’ve got somewhere to start! You will certainly get a better price if you’re willing to look at something on that level.”
“And what level would that be?”
The broker perceived that, for all his delicate mincing, he had finally wandered onto a sinkhole.
“Well – I only mean the extra trouble, De-da!” he spluttered. “Trouble, hassle, extra considerations. The poor health, mainly. Bey who grew up low tend to be weak. And of course, the Gazers are quite strong, but their health is more fragile than a lowborn’s and well – I won’t say they’re all lunatics, De-da, but you can’t deny they’re strange. They can of course be trained, if you know what motivates them. Either way, it shouldn’t be too much trouble, I imagine, not for you! If anybody were up to the challenge it would be you, of course, De-da.”
“Of course,” Ghavan said drily. “Trouble, as you put it, doesn’t worry me. I’ve raised a son and a nephew who gave me plenty of trouble. I simply put the trouble to work.”
“And you did good work with it! Certainly did, De-da. Tera is a great sight. So I’m told,” said the broker, relieved to be on solid ground again.
“What price do these men ask?” Ghavan asked. “Show me.”
The broker hastened around the counter again and retrieved a folder from underneath it. He laid out stapled bundles of paper as he spoke.
“Now, I can fairly promise you I’ll be able to barter these down,” he said, “but the lowest standing offer I have is this one, De-da: seventy per week. That for a rather unhealthy-looking fellow from low down underneath Davspar. Snad, I think he’s from – he’s curly-headed, anyway. And then there’s a Gazer girl here in Jasht, for seventy-eight per week – but she’s a lightweight, you see, so perhaps not the best option for you, and she apparently won’t speak, or can’t. Never mind her, then – except for comparison. Seventy-eight. Not with my own small fee included, of course. And then there’s the cost of keeping the fellow, or the girl, while it stays with you, which adds a bit.”
“Well, yes, they’re a little high, aren’t they?” said the broker, gathering the papers and tapping them on the counter. “Rent, De-da, rent. Now, on the other hand, if you were looking to, well, to buy…”
Ghavan’s silence was, at least, not the word no.
The broker watched him attentively, trying to read his deliberately unreadable face.
“Tell you what,” said the broker, trying his foothold and going for it. “I wasn’t going to mention this, but you’re in a bit of a bind, De-da, no denying that, and it’s possible I can hand you a good deal. Maybe I can solve this problem for you. And I don’t mind telling you, maybe you can solve a particular little problem for me at the same time! Well, I say little; I mean, I got a really big, tall particular problem, right here in the establishment, if you follow me.”
Ghavan crossed his arms and thought for a while before speaking. The broker got more and more uncomfortable, and at length decided he’d rather hike the long way around.
“On the other hand, De-da, it’s quite possible that in the next week or two, other workers will become available. I will no doubt be able to find -”
“Show me,” said Ghavan.
The broker tripped over his words.
“Oh? I – oh. Show you – my problem?”
“If you would. I’d like to see him.”
“Well, then, of course. Let me just pop back and get him. I do think it could work out, De-da, if you don’t mind my saying. He’s quite a fellow! Strong even for a Gazer – that’s saying something – and seems to be pretty smart too. Not sick, even. But of course, if you aren’t interested, no harm done at all! It was only a thought. Well, yes, right, let me just go and – of course – I will be right back, De-da.”
Ghavan allowed the man to run himself into silence. The broker shuffled away through a narrow door behind the counter.
Tedis leaned forward. Her hands were clenched tightly on the book she’d forgotten to pretend to read.
“Papa,” she whispered.
“You’ve never seen a Gazer before, Tedis,” Ghavan said. “Get a good look.”
“Papa, I don’t like it!”
A smile tweaked the corner of her father’s mouth. “You haven’t seen it yet.”
“I mean, Papa, what will everyone say of you?”
“Whatever they want, of course. I’m only going to look at him.”
After a few moments the broker returned, with something else entirely.
Tedis gave up feigning any interest in her book whatsoever, and shrank slowly down behind the potted plant in an attempt to become invisible.
The creature had been obliged to duck through the doorway. When it straightened its back, its head nearly brushed the ceiling. It stood more than a head taller than Ghavan. The nervous little broker didn’t reach even to its shoulder.
Tedis couldn’t help but stare. She couldn’t place its age, if it had one. The smooth face and the skinny ankles visible beneath the cuffs of trousers too short for its long legs hinted at youth. The stubble on its – his, she generously clarified – face suggested maturity. His every other feature was too unfamiliar to suggest anything at all.
His hair was black and wavy and badly in need of a wash and a cut. His brows and beard were black too, and black hair grew on his arms. His skin had not a single freckle, but on his neck and forearms it was marked with a strange tracery of dots and lines in faint green-grey. His features carried an exaggerated, fierce grace like that of a statue, and they wore no expression but a heaviness, of clenched jaw, slack brow and half-lidded eyes; more like concentration or sleep Tedis couldn’t decide.
His eyes alarmed her the most. He passed them blankly over Ghavan and then turned them in Tedis’ direction. They didn’t focus. He seemed to be looking at something behind her, through her; and his face showed no recognition at all. The eyes were just a mirrored vagueness where the pupil should have been, rimmed in black instead of a proper iris. They glinted with an eerie inner light like an animal’s in the dark. She shivered and stared at him through the plant.
“Well, De-da?” said the broker, smiling hopefully.
Ghavan opened his mouth and closed it again. Some fact had fluttered in. Behind amused eyes he toyed with it, folding up it into an idea. He leaned an elbow comfortably on the counter and looked up into the Gazer’s empty face.
“Do you understand Getta?” he asked.
The Gazer, predictably, reacted only by looking back at the floor.
“Oh – yes, De-da, he does. And speaks it too, when he cares to,” said the broker, after a long pause.
“Naturally,” Ghavan said, still addressing the Gazer. “You’re a bit of a troublemaker, I imagine. Yes? But not a very successful one, since you’re taking up space in a labor-broker’s office where you’re not wanted, wearing cuffs and a recently broken nose.”
The gazer winced, but continued to look at the floor.
The broker rubbed the back of his neck. “Very clever, De-da. Yes, I’ll admit, he’s a bit hard to manage. He started a fight in the lines in Andar’s oil refinery. Well, several fights. They said he got himself beaten badly every time, but went on starting fights all the same. Kein-deye finally had enough. As I offered to pay, he sent him to me on last week’s train. But of course -”
“Kein, you say?”
“Oh, yes. This fellow was on one of Kein-deye’s own crews. It would have been much worse for him if not for my standing offer! You know, I am sure, the limits of Kein-deye’s sympathy.”
“It’s fairly short. He’s a practical man.”
“As you say, De-da!” The broker laughed and leaned in closer to Papa, looking furtively around his office as though it were crowded with people who might care what he said.
“But depending on who you’re talking to, now, practical means – well – cowardly!” he continued. “Kein-deye is nothing like the Matriarch. Plays it safe. But never risk, never win, as they say! Now a man like you, De-da, you’re not afraid of a risk. You’ve got what it takes to wager and win, and I’m not just saying it, De-da; we all know it. I mean that. So for what it’s worth, De-da, you managed White Ridge so I daresay you could manage this Gazer! An investment, I’d call it.”
Ghavan sighed slightly and returned his attention to the Gazer.
“So,” he continued, “you started fights when Kein was to reckon with, and did it repeatedly, even though my friend the broker tells me you’re intelligent. This interests me. What did you start the fights for?”
The voices on the radio were obscured by a pop of static.
“What is your name?” Ghavan asked.
“What’s yours?” said the Gazer.
His tone as Tedis heard it was off-white, and a little off-putting. A heavy accent dragged backwards on his words like a chain clattering over gravel.
“Ha ha!” said the broker.
Ghavan’s smile emerged again. He returned the gaze and without hesitation replied, “Ghavan-de-da; and to you, I am simply De-da.”
“Everybody is,” said the Gazer.
“I suppose so. And you? If you don’t give me your name, I must regrettably call you only Bey, or Gazer. It will be a disservice to us both.”
“You can’t pronounce,” said the Gazer.
“I can try, Gazer.”
“My name is Victor,” said the Gazer.
“Vikted,” attempted Ghavan.
“You can’t pronounce.”
“Perhaps in time I can. Say it again,” said Ghavan.
Tedis shut her book with an intentionally loud snap – pale blue, she noted – and gave her Papa a significant look. But to her horror he simply waved a hand toward her, and said, “Perhaps my daughter would like to try. She is better spoken than I am. Say it again for her!”
Tedis shook her head frantically.
Addressing the floor, the Gazer repeated the strange word. Tedis froze. The broker bounced on his toes.
“Victer,” she finally said.
A tiny smile flickered across the Gazer’s face and died. Tedis’ face burned.
“Ever been out of the city before, Vikted?” Ghavan asked.
“Ever worked in a home instead of a factory?”
“No, but -”
“Think you’d like to?”
The Gazer seemed confused. He looked up and narrowed his eyes.
“No,” he replied.
“Shut up, you,” said the broker in a conversational tone. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Ghavan waved a hand. “So you liked Davspar better, did you?” he asked.
“No,” the Gazer replied.
“Regrettably, De-da,” interjected the broker, “he will be difficult. It’s best not to give him too much room for nonsense, De-da; I’ve discovered that myself.” He brushed his bruised thumb over his breast pocket.
The Gazer glowered at the floor and seemed suddenly taller.
“Well, De-da? …” asked the broker.
Ghavan looked at Tedis. She knew he wanted her approval, though they both knew he’d do what he wanted regardless. She rolled her eyes at the ceiling and waved a pinky at shoulder-height to signify do what you want.
“I will consider it,” he said.
“Oh? You will? Wonderful!” The broker slapped Victor’s chest – he couldn’t have easily reached much higher – and waved him towards the exit. Victor took a couple of steps backward but otherwise ignored the dismissal.
The broker nearly made a friendly grab for Ghavan’s arm, but thought better of it, and transformed the motion into an awkward snatch for his pen.
“Now as to price, De-da, considering you’d be doing me a favor, I won’t want much,” he said, scrabbling behind the counter for paperwork. “In fact, I am willing to give you the same price I paid for him – merely eighty-five, and he’s yours.”
“Couldn’t get much for less, honestly, De-da. I did hear of a Gazer girl going for seventy-five, but I think she was, well, you know. It was a sale by one of those characters down under Spice quarter. Apparently Gazer girls are especially …” The broker smirked, and gestured in midair. He seemed in danger of elaborating further.
“Oh, please,” Tedis spoke up, “that’s disgusting.”
Once again the radio bloomed with static. It was not a gradual sandpapering of the voices in the news program, but a sudden burst of pure white noise.
Victor muttered a stream of sounds none of them could understand, and suddenly kicked the broker.
His feet were bare and his ankles skinny, but the kick apparently carried more force than was visible. The broker swore loudly, fell into the counter, and dropped the paperwork.
The Gazer backed away, with almost a swagger in his step as though he neither knew nor cared about his bound hands. His sneer bared a row of straight white teeth, one incisor short of perfect.
“I liked Davspar,” he said.
Ghavan seized the broker’s arm to help him up. The broker waved him off impatiently and his bruised hand disappeared into his jacket.
Victor ducked as though taking cover, but halfway through he went rigid. He stumbled and hit the floor so stiffly he almost clattered. His outstretched arms shook, and his paralyzed fingers went white around the knuckles. He breathed fast and shallowly through clenched teeth.
“There,” the broker said. “Not to worry, De-da. As I said: strong and strange, but managed easily enough.”
He pulled his hand out of his jacket, and Victor suddenly relaxed all over. The broker began to massage his crushed ankle.
Tedis had stood up to see over the plant. She watched the skinny creature lying on the floor, breathing as though winded. “Ayah! What was that?” she asked. “What did you do?”
The broker shot her a nervous glance. “Oh, not to worry, Didi. You’ve heard of these, surely?” He pulled something out of his breast pocket and laid it on the counter near Ghavan’s hand. Tedis peered at it. It looked like nothing but a small two-way radio. It was missing the cover on its speaker.
“A buzzer,” the broker said, cradling his foot awkwardly. “Simple to make, as it turns out; I had the electrician’s boy whip this one up for me in fifteen minutes. Can’t tell you exactly why, but it works like a charm. It’s been indispensable, really.”
“But what does it do?” she asked.
The broker nodded towards Victor. “Well – that,” he said. “Oh, don’t worry, Didi! It certainly doesn’t harm him.”
She glanced at Victor again. He had gotten stiffly to his knees and was curled up over his bound hands like a pillbug. His heavy facial expression had returned and he stared blankly at, or possibly through, the floor.
Ghavan sucked his teeth and reached a conclusion. He slapped the counter.
“Well, I am interested,” he said briskly, as though the conversation had not been interrupted in the slightest.
“What?” Tedis gasped.
“I understand your hesitation. Tell you what; for you, De-da, eighty, and I’ll throw in this – what?” said the broker.
“I am interested,” said Ghavan again. “I’d like to see the papers.”
The static fell off as suddenly as it had begun. An advertisement played merrily on the radio.
The broker laughed nervously. “Oh! Marvelous! And really, De-da, I think you’ve made a fine choice!”
He snapped his fingers in Victor’s direction, and gestured towards the papers he’d dropped on the floor.
Victor squinted, and groped along the floor as though blind. With difficulty he scooped up the papers and pushed them into the broker’s hand. He turned to leave through the narrow door, and the broker let him go. His stride wobbled as he shuffled away.
“You’ll give me an hour, I’m sure,” Ghavan said. He took the paper that the broker was attempting to smooth with one hand. He glanced over it, then folded it neatly and pushed it under the belt of his jacket. “Allow me to consider, and I will sign when I come back.”
He calmly put on his hat, nodding his way through the barrage of desperately cheerful explanations. Tedis gathered her things quickly. She shut her book on a hasty drawing of a shaggy giant with empty eyes, crossed out repeatedly with X-marks, and hefted her bag over her shoulder. They took their leave.