Osha didn’t have much when he got to Valena. His things had waxed and (mostly) waned as he drifted south. He’d lost clothing, photographs, a whole bottle of pills. But since leaving the nomads and going it alone, everything had settled. Sensibly. Memorizably.
4 pairs of pants
7 pairs of underwear
8 mismatched socks
9 weeks’ worth of medication (if taken as directed), and
10 crisp, freshly minted Pan-Archipelago Union bank bills
He didn’t count his ink pens or guitar, sleeping bag or tattered shoes – that’d be like counting fingers and toes. What mattered was that, for the first time in more than two years, he knew exactly what he had and exactly where it was. It was neat. It was orderly.
It was a particularly bad time to be robbed.
For nine halcyon nights, he’d slept in a driftwood hut, right where Valena’s boisterous bayfront gave way to the calm of the North Woods. It was a forgotten place, one that barely existed at high tide, yet hardly a deer trail stood between it and the crowds Osha sang for. Nobody was even buried there: no small feat in Valena, where headstones rose like mountain ranges, half a dozen bodies under the average house. Courtyards and parks, even cafés served the dead – choking the streets with incense, littering the alleys with flower petals. But Osha was alone on his little beach. The hills of town rolled around him like electrified waves, but they never reached him there. Nothing did. Safe in his cove, he knew only serenity.
So it was quite the shock to be woken one night by a boot in the gut and dragged from his sleeping bag by his hair.
Blinded by instinct he fought, loosing a thorny vine of curses and a slew of misplaced kicks. But steel on his shin soon stopped that – and everything else along with it. No timid wind. No chirping insects. The whole black bay held its salty breath. Osha’s heart alone thumped on, an ancient drum in a fossilized world.
In the still, he could make out two digmen: sharp arrow hats over moon-white grass, angular uniforms over lazy ferns. Osha had never known why digmen were called “digmen.” He’d never seen them dig anything. Holy men dug the graves in the Union, and prisoners dug the rail lines. But the nickname fit better than their official title. Even with the language barrier, Osha could plainly tell that “Officers of Peace” didn’t suit them any. Dangling from one of their hands was a baton on a chain – exactly the width of the bruise that would soon appear on Osha’s leg. Slowly it swung, the pendulum of a clock: time remembering itself.
A blinding light flared up. Osha’s eyes slammed shut.
“Vagrancy is forbidden, you know.” A man’s voice, smooth and cold as marble.
Osha failed to steady his own. “I’m not a vagrant, sir.”
One of the digmen snickered.
The other one didn’t. “What are ya, then? A nomad?”
More snickering. “Not with that pasty face.”
Shakily, Osha rose to his feet. “I—”
They went for his ribs this time, icy baton knocking him backward and bent. It took a minute to unfold, and by then they were much closer. Osha had yet to visit a place where he felt tall, and he certainly wasn’t tall here. Not that size mattered against men with guns.
Especially when they reeked of beer.
He took an extra step back.
“Come on, go easy on him,” the one with the light chided. “He probably can’t understand. You’re not from around here, are ya kid?”
Osha was still fighting for breath. What’s more, he wasn’t sure he should answer.
The man cocked his head. “How much ya got on ya?”
Osha narrowed his eyes. “What?”
The baton swung out again, slamming into his side.
“We’re the ones asking the questions! Answer!”
But he didn’t answer. He turned and ran.
It seemed rational enough, tearing through the wet wild, empty-handed in a foreign country. His bare socks, soaked heavy with mud, didn’t protest any. Neither did his racing pulse. Pain fanned through his ribs with his gasps, but it was a useful sensation. Motivating.
He stopped when he reached the boardwalk, doubled over and panting. Escape beckoned under the streetlamps, crisp and vivid: gleaming stones across the boulevard, cavernous alleys, stairways to safety. If he could only catch his breath.
It was usually bustling here, so close to the market, but there were no crowds to lose himself in now. The place was abandoned.
One lone woman, blue-gray and brown against the yellow leaves, emerged from an alley and paused. A witness, at least – for whatever that was worth. Haloed in frizz beneath the hazy light, she was looking right at him. And just as the digmen came crashing out of the brush, she raised a single gloved hand. “Osha, darling! There you are!”
He’d never seen her before in his life.
The digmen slowed their approach, scrutinizing the woman as she splashed across the cobblestones. A twisting tornado scarf. A storm cloud of gauzy fabric atop tiny velvet slippers. Head pinned with feathers. Cheeks blushed in perfect circles. Voice like a ringing bell: “I’ve been looking all over for you!”
The digmen turned to Osha now. Like he could explain this.
“I’m so terribly sorry, officers,” the woman gushed. “Was he troubling you? He’s new to town, you know, and does lose his way.”
The digmen looked incredulous. “You expect us to believe this hobo’s yours?”
“Why, of course!” Her eyes went wide. “He’s my cousin. Can’t you see the resemblance?”
The men erupted now, spewing lava laughter. “Listen, sister,” one of them jeered, “whatever stunt you’re tryin’ to pull, I’m not buying it. This guy’s got a full campsite back there and not a sign of papers—”
“That’s because they’re at my house,” the woman cut him off. “His name is Osha Oloreben, he’s nineteen years old, and he’s here on a temp visa for health purposes.” A small purse appeared, fished from the misty seas of her skirt. And the catch of the day: a shimmery, silver-finned calling card. “My address. I can verify everything in the morning.” Curtly, she stuffed it into one of their fists. “Now, if you would be so kind, we really should get home. This cold can’t possibly help my cousin’s condition.”
The digmen scowled.
Osha feigned a grin. “It won’t happen again.”
The warmth of the woman’s glove enveloped Osha’s fingers. She squeezed. “Shall we?”