Contraband

Nyah jostled against the other women. Bodies in various stage of undress pressed in on all sides. The locker room was silent of talk. Women shed the green overalls of their employ and replaced them with the dull tones of Labour Caste. Their bodies unfolded, easing out of work and closer to home.

Nyah was balancing on one foot, the other brought up as she fiddled with her boot laces. She wriggled in place and fought with the stubborn double knot. Her fingers dug into the coarse thread, seeking better purchase, but her knuckles brushed against something hard.

“Ow!”

A woman, Gen, gave Nyah a questioning look.

“Just a stone in my shoe,” Nyah whispered quickly, before returning to the problem.

How had a stone gotten lodged in there?

Nyah stuck her fingers between the laces. She wriggled the stone and pulled. The course skin of the stone grabbed at the lace, but just a little bit of pressure and it pulled through. Nyah brought the stone to eye level and then hastily closed her fist. It wasn’t a stone.

Nyah dropped into a low crouch and ever so carefully, she opened her hand again.

Oh.

No.

It wasn’t a stone.

Nyah clenched her fist shut. A stream of silent curses rushed through her. How had that gotten into her shoe? How had it gotten past security?

Nyah turned toward the Greenhouse entry. She couldn’t see the door or the guards, her world was a city of shifting legs, but she knew they were there. She pressed her fingers deep into her palm and felt the little bean imprinting on her flesh. She should return it.

She should.

But…

Nyah knew what would happen. The guards would overreact. She would no doubt be taken in for questioning; detainment. What were the chances of her innocence being believed? And the other women? They’d all be detained too. For several hours at least. The guards would rerun their security checks. Personal belongings would be pawed through with aggressive disrespect. Questions would be barked into faces, the guards intent on exposing accomplices.

Nyah looked at the other women. They weren’t friends, not exactly. The Greenhouse was not the kind of place that fostered close connection, but they were her colleagues and she understood what they endured. She understood what the end of shift meant. Home. Family. A reason for the sacrifice. If she were to turn the bean in, if she were to enrage the guards… it would be as if Nyah had taken them all hostage.

She couldn’t, she wouldn’t do that to them.

The bean dug into her palm. Are you sure you want to do this?

Nyah bent her head low. She struggled with the stubborn boot lace and finally got the knot free. She kicked the boot off. It was followed shortly by the second. Nyah took a deep breath and rose, the bean still clenched in her hand. She unzipped the overall and shrugged her arms free. She pressed her hands into the fabric and pushed it down to her hips. Nyah paused, just a fraction of a second, and carefully slid the bean into the band of her underwear. She hurriedly removed the rest of her work wear and scrambled into her Caste regulation clothing. Most of the women were filing out now, the night air swirling through the open door and into the empty spaces left behind. Nyah was acutely aware of the guards’ eyes on her. The lone straggler keeping them from their evening meal.

Everything is fine. Everything is fine.

Nyah had already been through security. The guards had no reason to search her again.

They never need a reason.

Breathe.

Everything is fine.

Nyah plunged her feet into her boots, grabbed her pouch and hurried out of the door. She reached the Transport just as it was about to leave. Nyah rushed through the closing doors and grabbed for the nearest handhold. Sweat beaded her forehead as the Transport began the slow glide home.

**********

“Mama, what is that?”

It was Sunday. Nyah’s one day off and five days since she had become an unintentional smuggler. No one had come looking for her. No midnight raids. She and her family were safe. As safe as any of their neighbours.

The bean lay on the table, gently nestled in a wad of cotton wool. Nyah had a glass of water in one hand and was using it as a rather crude magnifying glass. The bean looked much like the beans she handled at the Greenhouse. Old, fragile and unlikely to sprout. This one would have been sorted for consumption. In any given week, only a small handful would be selected for growing and of those, very few survived to fruit.

Nyah settled back and wrapped an arm around her daughters small shoulders. The little body leaned into the space and pressed against her mother’s side. Nyah held the snuggle for a moment. Her husband, Marek, sat at the opposite end of the four seater. She caught his eye. He shrugged. It was up to her to decide what to tell their four year old.

“It’s a bean,” Nyah finally answered.

“What kind of bean?”

“The kind that might grow into a tree if we plant it.”

“Can we plant it? Please Mama, please. I’ll help!”

Nyah looked at the bean again, such an innocent thing. Such a complicated thing.

“Will it grow?”

Nyah looked up at her husband. “Unlikely,” she responded.

“But can we try, Mama, please? I want to try!”

Marek shrugged again. “Plant it. No real harm in burying it, is there?”

Marek was right. They would just be burying it. The bean wouldn’t sprout. It was too old, too wizened. What harm was there in doing this little activity with her daughter. It couldn’t grow. The Greenhouse Science Caste, with all their learning and equipment, were barely able to grow the trees. A bean sorter and her four year old couldn’t do better than Science Caste.

“Yes, let’s plant it,” Nyah said.

****************

“Mama mama look! It grew it grew!”

Nyah smiled, a strained and crooked thing. The stalk was young and yet seemed brown with age. It was bent in on itself as if its own leaves were too much of a weight to bare. The leaves brushed against the soil, wrinkled and small.

“Yes Tae, I see it.”

“Can I water it Mama?”

Nyah took her daughter’s hand. “Come, I’ll help you with the tap.”

Later that night, Marek found Nyah sitting in front of the plant, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. He sat beside her, shoulders touching and looked at the scraggly thing.

“It wasn’t supposed to sprout,” Nyah whispered.

Marek took her hand. He laced his fingers into hers. “What do you want to do?”

Nyah pressed her fingers into Marek’s. “We should… end it.”

“Are you going to?”

Nyah turned to her husband, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Am I selfish if I say no? If it grows… if it survives… I’m putting us all at risk… but… do you know that that’s the first bean that’s sprouted in the last three years? We’ve just done what three years of Science Caste couldn’t. All because I let a four year old stick a bean into a pile of dirt. All because I’ve let a four year old look after it.

How can I kill that?”

Marek wrapped his arms around Nyah and pulled him into his chest. “It’s not selfish to let something grow. And if it does grow and if it does fruit, we will figure it out then. Right now, it’s just a sprout and most sprouts don’t make it, right?”

Nyah nodded. “ Most of them don’t make it.”

But it wasn’t supposed to sprout.

**************

“It’s growing well.”

Nyah felt the hands snake around her waist and leaned into Marek’s bulk. The tree, and it was most certainly a tree now, looked happy. The weak stalk had grown into a thick rope, crookedly bent where growth had been a struggle, but strong now and healthy. The leaves were a thick, bright green. A few rust spots dotted their surface, a small reminder of the tree’s frail beginnings. Tael loved her tree. She sang to it and she watered it and she gave it a new name every other day. Tael could not be happier. Nyah could not be more filled with dread.

She hugged Marek’s arms tightly.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“Hey… hey, no. Don’t be sorry. This is amazing. You are amazing.”

“If they find out…”

Marek rested his chin on Nyah’s shoulder. His breath easy and warm against her skin.

“I’ve been talking to some friends with connections to the Resistance.”

Marek uncoiled an arm from around Nyah’s waist and reached out to the tree. Nyah stood silently in his embrace and watched as his finger delicately traced the edges of a leaf.

“We always talk about having a better future for Tael, maybe, with this, we can do something.”

Nyah shifted her weight. “It’s just one tree.”

“It’s a start.”

************

Three men and one woman stood on one side of the tiny living area. Nyah and her husband stood on the other. To Nyah, they looked worn, dirty. She wondered what she looked like to them? An obedient Labour Caste woman, in her Labour Caste clothes and her Labour Caste house. Their expressions seemed bored and unimpressed. How many families asked the Resistance for help and got none? Their resources were limited, their space to house fugitives dwindling. The resistance simply did not help you if you could not help them. Nyah took a deep breath.

The tree was in fruit, the pods hanging heavy and proud. Sooner or later, Security would run a Street check and sooner or later, she would be found out. Nyah needed the Resistance’s help.

“Right,” the woman spoke, voice laced with fatigue. “What do you have that you think we need?”

Nyah grasped the hand Marek offered. “Before I tell you, I have some conditions.”

“Lady, you are in no position to be listing conditions.”

“Just listen. Please.”

The woman folded her arms over her chest. Her fingers tapped a rhythm against her arm. “I don’t have all night. Just get on with it.”

Nyah nodded. ”It belongs to my daughter. I need your assurance that it still stays within her care. You can have access, but it is hers.”

“And what is it?”

“Do I have your word?”

The woman clenched her teeth, clearly holding back a string of impolite words. “If it will hurry this up, yes, you have my assurance. Now, what. Is. It?”

Nyah swallowed. She stepped aside to reveal her bargaining chip.

“It’s a Cacao tree.”

Burn Victim

The cloud was thick and acrid. It coursed into the kitchen intent on assault. Jessica stumbled back. An oven mitt (rust brown with bruises from past battles) fell to the floor. Jessica swore and then she hacked, her words getting caught on the soot and the quickly thinning air. She cleared her throat as best she could and then she threw herself back into the haze. One hand trailed the ground. She found the mitten by feel alone. Her eyes beat furiously. A steady stream of tears coursed down her cheeks. She pushed forward.

Jessica pulled the oven door fully open and thrust her mitten covered hand inside. Her fingers curled, gripped and yanked. She snapped up, clunked her latest victim onto the stove top and made a run for the patio doors.

Jessica dragged in air. It felt like a drug. Behind her, a thinning cloud of smoke wafted toward the doors and to freedom. She looked back at the kitchen and shook her head.

“Oh Jessie girl, you really need to stop doing this.”

It had become a habit of hers to turn to baking when an art block came on. Following a recipe allowed her to create without also having to deal with the tricky business of creative thinking. And giving herself that space, that time to keep her hands busy while her mind wandered, it worked. Exactly one baking session later and Jessica was ready to face the clay once more.

It had also become a habit of hers to get lost in the work while her saviour slowly turned to char.

Today’s hero-turned-burn-victim should have been a sticky date pudding. Now it was just an imagined memory on the tongue.

Jessica shrugged. It’s not like she actually wanted all of those calories.

Deadly

Haimler cut. Threads of pink descended silently from the scissors blade. They came to a gentle rest atop the polished work surface and Haimler lost himself in their simplicity. Small strings twined together, a basic material for a most intricate task.

Haimler looked up from the offcuts to examine his work. The embroidery was an uncomplicated design of spiraled roses, leaves and branches. Work that should have been left to one of his assistants, but Haimler needed the peace that the familiar task afforded him. His fingers knew the paths to take and it left his mind free to wonder.

Haimler stared at his work a moment longer before chuckling to himself. He had made the thorns far more pronounced, almost a dangerous warning, than he had intended. It seemed that his thoughts had led his fingers astray after all.

Haimler looked toward the door, his thoughts again betraying his motion. Lady Raegalynn would have returned from the Young Nobles Club by now. An event that Raegalynn despised, but her mother considered non-negotiable. The Ladies of the house were most likely arguing somewhere deep within the residence. It would not be long before both women crashed into Haimler’s office, the older of the two demanding an explanation.

Haimler put his work down and began to clean. The task did nothing to ease his growing apprehension.

 

The door swung open. Haimler jerked as it crashed against the opposite wall. Coloured offcuts fluttered out of his startled hands. The Lady Nisha stormed in, Raegalynn dragged in behind her. The mother had a fierce grip on her daughter’s wrist. Neither looked pleased.

 

“What is the meaning of this?!”

 

Haimler straightened, folded his hands behind his back and assessed the women. Lady Nisha was scowling. One hand swept the length of Raega’s dress, gesturing to the this of which she spoke.

And Lady Raegalynn… she was a vision! Dark red fabric hugged her body. It cut in tight at the waist and hips only to flare out, just slightly, as it cascaded down her legs. The skirt was made of alternating shades of ruby to wine to not quite black. Each swath of fabric ending in a jagged point. The neckline coasted the breastbone, a smaller echo of the jagged points below.

Over her shoulder was one delicate strap. She had chosen her jewellery well too. Beautiful, understated pieces that complimented the dress rather than competed with it… and her hair. Raega’s maids had done well. They had given her raven hair a new cut, daringly short on one side of her face and cascading layers against the other. Another echo to the sharpness in the dress.

“Well?” Lady Nisha demanded again.

Haimler kept his voice steady. “Lady Raegalynn needed a dress. I made her one.”

“This?!”

Lady Nisha gestured wildly. “This is not what I requested! This is not… respectable!”

Haimler shifted his weight. Respectable? No, the dress would not be considered respectable, not by Nortier standards, but that was not what he or Lady Raegalynn had been trying to achieve.

Deadly.

Lady Raegalynn had requested that Haimler make her look deadly and he had done it. Lady Raegalynn was a weapon. Haimler imagined how she must have looked at the Youth Club; a glistening dagger amongst a field of poof and lace. Magnificent, the kind of dress he had had dreamed of crafting.

It was too tight to the body, too lacking in the skirt. Within its embrace, Raegalynn boiled with a dangerous intensity.

The dress was not respectable.

 

Haimler returned his gaze to Lady Nisha. “It is what the Lady Raegalynn requested.”

 

Lady Nisha’s nostrils flared. She let go of Ragae’s wrist, her hand coming up to gesticulate fiercely. Haimler noted the red imprint of fingers on Raega’s arm.

“Her request? HER REQUEST? You know what is expected of the Ladies of Nortier. How could you allow her to leave the residence in such a state?! Raegalynn is a child! I expected more responsibility from you. How dare you entertain such foolishness!”

Haimler swallowed hard and readied himself to defend Raegalynn, but he did not have to. The young lady had stepped out from behind her mother. She spoke in deep, even tones, a bitter edge to every word.

“I am not a child.”

Lady Nisha turned, ever so slowly. “Excuse me?”

“I am Eighteen. Unless my lessons in Nortier Law have been an utter waste, I believe that that is the age of Majority, is it not?”

Lady Nisha rose above her daughter. “I am your mother! It is my responsibility to ensure you are presentable to society. These reckless acts tarnish my name. Tarnish our House. Your behaviour insults me. The other nobles will see me and see a fool. Is that what you want? Your mother to be a fool?”

Raega closed her eyes and clenched her fists. “This is not about you, mother…”

Raega did not get a chance to finish. A page stepped into the room. He coughed awkwardly. “Sorry to interrupt. Ah… an important message.”

Lady Nisha swung all of her anger toward him. “Well?!”

“Lady Raegalynn’s presence is requested at the castle. Tomorrow. For tea.”

Lady Nisha’s eyes became large. “Why? Does it say why?”

She did not wait for the page to answer. She grabbed the invitation from his hands. Her eyes darted across the square of parchment. First hurried and then slower. Finally, Lady Nisha looked up. She swallowed hard. Haimler cocked his head curiously as the Lady Nisha became suddenly unable to make eye contact.

“Well,” she said. “Well… It seems the princess would like to invite Lady Raegalynn and her Master of Wardrobe. To… discuss contemporary fashion.”

Lady Nisha rolled her shoulders. She handed the invite back to the page. “We accept the invitation. Now go.”

The page hurried out of the room. Lady Nisha followed. She paused in the doorway to gather herself and then gave both Lady Raegalynn and Haimler a piercing look.

“This discussion isn’t over.”