TOSotG: Chapter Four

IV - The Constable’s Verdict

It felt much better to be outside again, out of the thick, stifling air of the Council Hall. Having left the Red Room, he had not seen Xin, nor Mayor Colby, nor for that matter Artimus Rauche, the innkeeper who’d brought them there, and so navigated through the busy corridors of the local government building alone. 

Now, he found himself strolling down the open street in the center of town, back towards The Wayfarer’s Inn. Daniel gazed around him, watching the people bustle about with their day’s activities. He noted some of the local shops and market stands along the sides of the street: a dressmaker here, a furniture joiner there, a peddler offering some strange-looking fruit off of a handcart on the corner. Mostly, though, Daniel spent the time letting his mind wander about his situation.

He tried to concentrate on what he ought to be doing next, whether he should start looking for a job here in this town of Greetingsport, or if he should look into how to cross into the Second Realm, and begin a ‘forward-quest’.

Greetingsport seemed interesting enough, at least right now, but there was something about this place that felt a little dreary to him. The earthtone colors of the buildings, as well as the clothes of the people, the dust kicked up on the packed dirt streets as people rushed past. Everybody seemed busy and cheerful enough, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel like they were engaged in busywork, and had been for so long that it simply grew into a comfortable routine. When all one craves is safety and peace, one often finds comfort in monotony. To them, the notion of change can be terrifying.

All this felt very familiar to Daniel. Life at his boarding school had always been very structured, with a strong emphasis on maintaining routine and always keeping busy, even if there was nothing important to do. Feeling perpetually bored had grown over him the past few years like a scab. Even his leisure time was spent doing things that were barely entertaining, so much so that he had begun to feel numb to the whole experience of being a teenager. Nothing felt real anymore, and he had wondered if this is what it meant to become an adult.

If he was stuck in a rut before, clearly he wasn’t anymore since being brought to this strange world. He felt the weight of the heavy iron cannon slung over his shoulder, and tugged on its black leather strap. It felt real – all of this felt real, and yet he had to keep reminding himself that he was not dreaming. 

He decided that this was his chance to avoid the dreary life he’d always assumed he would lead after school. This was a chance to become something ... something important. He still wasn’t sure why he had been brought here, by what force, and to what purpose, but he felt certain that there was a reason, and he was determined to find it.

Daniel strolled over to a small produce stand on one side of the street, and started inspecting a box of odd-looking nuts. He picked up a nut, and examined it between his fingers. It was about the size of a walnut, except that it was perfectly round, with a dimpled shell, and had a dark green hue. It was a strange-looking nut, and since there were no trees in the First Realm, he had to assume that it was imported from some other Realm.

There was bound to be an endless number of incredible things, not only here, but in the fifteen other Realms in this world. Exploring it all was a very attractive idea. And yet – one out of fifty who venture beyond Cherry Landing fail? A two percent success rate in these forward-quests didn’t fill him with confidence, particularly since he didn’t exactly consider himself industrious boy-scout material. 

And what was it for – to reach this Eleventh Realm, and gain the power to go back and forth between The Realms? Was it worth risking his life just to be able to travel freely in these lands? Daniel couldn’t picture himself as some hardy adventurer, or roaming trader, or wizard, or even a troubadour. So, what purpose would it serve to rush headlong into the dangerous, long-odds of the unknown?

As peaceful and friendly as this First Realm, this Cherry Landing was, it didn’t seem like the kind of place where he was going to learn much of anything about why he had been brought here in this land. Other than peace and a semblance of normalcy, what else could Cherry Landing offer?

His quiet musing in front of the produce stand was broken by the piercing jolt of somebody screaming. Daniel turned around in order to find the commotion further down the street, as someone was thrown headlong out of what looked like a pottery shop, and tumbled into the middle of the dirt road. With a start, Daniel suddenly realized the forcibly evicted person was the girl with the buckets he had ran into the night before.

She had no buckets this time, and replacing the long smock, she wore a simple grey dress with a knapsack over her shoulder. As she tumbled into the street, the groceries in her knapsack, consisting of a loaf of bread and several kinds of fruits and vegetables, tumbled out onto the ground.

The girl had gashed her elbow in the fall, and the scarlet blood was quickly matted with dirt. Despite the obvious pain of her fall, she had not been the one to scream, that had been a middle-aged woman nearby who saw her get thrown out of the shop. Instead, the girl, named Eleanor as Daniel recalled, quietly struggled to get to her feet as her assailant emerged from the ceramic shop.

Daniel clenched the hard nut he’d been examining in his tightened fist as he saw Goldswaggle strut out of the shop, clearly proud of his attack on the poor girl. Looking around at the scene he was causing, he shouted for all to hear as he produced a heavy wooden cudgel. 

“This filthy bug catcher has been spreading lies about me! For a man of my position, reputation is everything! Therefore, I am well within my rights to punish her!”

He drew towards Eleanor, who bravely stood her ground in the middle of the street. All of the townspeople around the scene gasped in shock about the commotion, and the threat of dire punishment to the girl, but none of them stepped in to assist. 

Goldswaggle towered over her, raising his weapon over his head, ready to crack her across the face with it. The cudgel was a good two feet long, made of misshapen, hard black wood, and sported a metal spike on its tip. The blunt club could easily shatter her jaw if he hit her with even half of his strength.

In a flash of anger, Daniel shouted as he threw the nut he had been holding with all of his might. Even though he was at least a hundred feet away from the scene, he had struck Goldswaggle square in the forehead. Eleanor, who had her eyes closed, bracing for the blow, opened them to see her attacker staggering backwards, with a stunned expression, and a large red welt right between his glazed eyes.

After a moment, Goldswaggle shook off the blow from the nut projectile and spotted its hurler from through the gathering crowd.

“You!” He roared, pointing the cudgel ominously towards Daniel, who stood his ground defiantly. The shocked crowd glanced back and forth between them, and when Goldswaggle bull-rushed his way towards him, they fearfully backed away from the young boy.

The furious hunter swung his club down on Daniel, but his aim was poor, and Daniel stepped away from his attacker. With all his might, Daniel swung his fist at the tall, muscular man, but Goldswaggle caught his arm with his free hand and roughly tossed him into the produce stand. Nuts, and berries, and produce of all kinds flew out in every direction, and crumpled to the ground, his shoulder searing in pain from the awkward impact.

As Goldswaggle stepped over Daniel, Eleanor rushed over, yelling in protest. She grabbed Goldswaggle’s right arm, trying to prevent him from clubbing Daniel, who lay helpless on the ground. 

Her strength wasn’t nearly enough to subdue him, however, and he swung his arm backwards to shake her off of him. As he did, the spiked end of the cudgel gashed her across the side of her face, and she yelped in pain as she fell on her back, bleeding.

“Hold it!” Shouted another voice. It was another large man wearing a grey uniform similar to the one the officer who had intervened last night had worn. This officer was nearly as tall as Goldswaggle, and looked just as formidable, unsheathing a long shiny sword as he rushed towards the scene.

Seeing him come, Goldswaggle deftly knocked his sword out of his hand with his cudgel, then punched him right in the nose. The officer, who had run headlong into the fist was stunned, and was unable to resist as Goldswaggle grabbed him by the throat and sent him flying down the street like a rag doll.

With people beginning to scream at the escalating violence, a number of other officers began to rush towards the scene from several blocks away. Before they could arrive, Goldswaggle turned back towards Daniel, intent on finishing him off before they arrived.

Suddenly, the uncontrollably violent man froze in his tracks, as though he was tethered in place by an invisible rope. He then began to hover above the ground, unable to move his arms or legs. Behind his thick beard, his large face began to contort in pain, and his eyes welled up in tears. Daniel couldn’t see how it was happening, but he could hear what sounded like wind rushing through an empty tunnel.

As the crowd began to pull back from the scene, Daniel finally spotted who had halted Goldswaggle’s attack. It was yet another man, short with shoulder length graying hair and piercing black eyes. He wore a sort of cloak, the same shade of gray as the police officers’ uniforms, with a bright silver badge on his chest. He held a long wooden staff, reddish black in color, and pointed directly at the prostrate attacker, hovering about a foot off of the ground.

By this time several other officers, including Izzic, the one who had intervened the night before, had arrived. Most of the crowed had backed away to a respectful distance, but continued to watch events with great interest. 

The wizardly-looking constable bearing the staff commanded his subordinates. “Officer Grady, Officer Orgot, help the youngsters to their feet. Officer Izzic, check on Officer Gunther over there.”

Two of the officers carefully helped Daniel and Eleanor to their feet. Daniel was clutching his right shoulder, while Eleanor had her hand clasped against the right side of her face, with blood trickling down between her fingers. Officer Izzic moved further down the street to assist the fallen officer Goldswaggle had tossed aside. He was slowly trying to get back to his feet, but he was clearly woozy. His sword lay on the ground nearby, it’s long blade bent by the hunter’s cudgel.

“I am Constable Moray.” The wizard constable stared intently into Goldswaggle’s watery eyes. “You are the Hunter, Atticus Goldswaggle.”

He then looked to the street corner to the grocer who had been running the stand Daniel had been thrown into. “You are Vitalis Komineski, owner of the Emerald Street Perishables Stand.”

Then he turned to the two wounded young people and wrinkled his nose at them. “I do not know you two.”

“The girl is Eleanor Krunk.” Officer Izzic called out as he helped Officer Gunther back to the scene. “She is the daughter of Morris Krunk, the Town Bug Catcher.”

The wizard then glared at Daniel, and asked in a low, cool voice. “And you?”

Daniel was too stunned to respond, fortunately, Eleanor answered for him, as she somehow had remembered his name.

“He is Daniel Weaver.” She announced. “He is a newcomer, and he saved me-“

“Do not disrupt the order of proceedings.” Constable Moray barked curtly. “Are there any other participants?”

When nobody else in the crowd spoke up, he continued.

“Very well. Eleanor Krunk, Atticus Goldswaggle ejected you from the ceramics store. Why?”

Still clenching her teeth from the pain of her wounds, Eleanor responded. “I gave testimony against him last night, following an altercation he had with him.”

She pointed at Daniel with her free hand. Her other hand was still clamped tightly along her jawline in order to stop the bleeding.

“Is that true?” Moray asked Goldswaggle, after loosening his grip on the staff, which seemed to ease the invisible hold on his prisoner.

Goldswaggle growled in a low voice, trying to mask the pain he was in. “Lies, Constable Moray. This peasant girl gave false testimony, and as such, allowed that little brat to steal my property.”

Daniel glared angrily at him. Goldswaggle’s quest for petty revenge had hurt a lot of people, including himself, and now he was trying to cover up his own embarrassment by lying about his motives.

“Previous incidents are not up for dispute.” The wizard lectured him sternly, grasping the staff again, and causing Goldswaggle a sudden jolt of pain. “Appeals from lower decisions by my officers are to be taken up with me. They are not cause for personal retribution.”

Moray slowly twisted the staff in his hands, which changed the pitch the wind-tunnel sound made, and was clearly causing Goldswaggle escalating pain. As much he detested the violent and egotistical hunter, Daniel did not like seeing him tortured in front of him.

“Just send him to jail!” He tried to bark out, though his voice broke as he did. The pain of his shoulder was tensing up all of his muscles, and he found himself twitching involuntarily.

Moray glared at him icily. “Only I determine sentencing, Mr. Weaver. You will be silent unless spoken to in these proceedings.”

Meanwhile, Officer Gunther gazed mournfully down at his broken sword, as though it were a fallen comrade on the battlefield. He picked it up gingerly, trying in vain to coax the bent blade back to its original pristine form.

Moray continued to muse silently, apparently having gathered all the information he needed. It would seem that, as head of the town’s police force, he operated as an on-the-spot judge for circumstances such as these. All of the townspeople who had gathered around the scene were waiting in silence to hear his verdict. 

“Mr. Weaver, how long have you been here in Greetingsport?”

Daniel’s heart froze. He hadn’t realized that he was also on trial here. Quietly, he answered the constable. “Since last night.”

“You have been to the mayor then?” Moray continued.

Daniel nodded weakly. “Yes.”

“Then you understand the penalty for disturbing the peace.” Moray concluded.

“No!” Daniel chirped in a high-pitched squeak. Trying to compose himself, he attempted to explain. “The mayor only spoke with us for a few minutes. He was called away to a council meeting or something, and we only discussed a handful of things. Local laws and p-punishments were not among them!”

A deep throaty growl emerged from the back of Constable Moray’s throat. Clearly, he was irritated by this explanation. It was unclear, however, whether he was irritated at the mayor for his lackluster orientation, or if he was angrier at Daniel for trying to use it as an excuse.

“Very well!” He barked at last. “Your sentence is probationarily rescinded. I would advise you, however, to make yourself acquainted with our laws and regulations here in Greetingsport, as ignorance will not protect you next time!”

He then turned to Goldswaggle, still hovering helpless above the ground. “You, Mr. Goldswaggle, are found guilty on multiple counts. For disturbing the peace, you are sentenced to one week banishment from the First Realm.”

Glancing over at the smashed produce stand, Moray continued. “For destruction of private property, you are sentenced to a fine of 75 ingots, payable to the property bearer, Mr. Komineski.”

Moray then glared over at Daniel. “On assaulting a newcomer, you are found innocent, as Mr. Weaver instigated the altercation by striking you with a hardened legume. For assaulting Ms. Krunk, you are sentenced to banishment for three weeks.”

Still holding Goldswaggle in the vice grip of his staff’s magic, the Constable strolled over to Officer Gunther and carefully inspected the bruises on his face, and the trickle of blood from his swollen nose.

“For assaulting a Constable’s Officer of Greetingsport, you are banished for eighteen weeks, and ordered to pay a 300 ingot fine to the Constable’s Office. For destruction of Greetingsport Constables’ property, you are banished for six weeks and ordered to pay a 150 ingot fine.”

Moray then turned and nodded towards Officer Izzic. “What are the total terms of the sentence?”

Izzic, who had been jotting the sentencing in a notepad as Constable Moray had been doling it out, responded. “Banishment from the First Realm for 28 weeks – that’s approximately 7 months – and ordered to pay a fine of 450 ingots to the Constable’s Office, and 75 ingots to Vitalis Komineski for damages.”

“By the power vested in me by the Town Council of Greetingsport, I herby decree this to be your sentence. There is no avenue for appeals, and the sentence will be carried out immediately.”

Finally, Moray released the condemned man from his magical grip. Goldswaggle fell to the ground in a heap, but shortly managed to pick himself up. He glared angrily at the constable, but said nothing.

“Officers Heber, Grady, Orgat, and Izzic will escort you to your residence, they will watch you pack your belongings, and they will collect your fines in full, and then they will escort you to the Threshold Gate. If you resist the officers escorting you, you are to be put to immediate death.” 

Goldswaggle continued to glare menacingly at the wizard, who was much shorter than he, but not at all intimidated by the furious hunter. Moray continued.

“The Protectors will be informed that you may not return to Cherry Landing until June 23rd of next year. After that, you will be welcomed back to the First Realm with no further restitution for this matter. However, your role in this incident shall be noted, and may be considered to your detriment in any future rulings.”

With that, Moray nodded to his deputies, who led the hunter away from the scene. As he left, Goldswaggle shot one last glare at Daniel, as if to indicate to him that their dispute was not settled.

With the incident fully resolved, the crowd began to disperse, and Constable Moray then turned to address Daniel and Eleanor. 

“You two, off to the healer. Get yourselves cleaned up.” 

With that, Moray turned and walked away, while the rest of the officers broke up the crowd. The grocer grumpily began gathering up his produce which had spilled everywhere. By this time, everyone was ignoring the two wounded teens at the center of the fracas, and Eleanor nodded slightly to Daniel.

“This way.” She told him, and then led him off to the healer.

“I’m really sorry about this.” Daniel said quietly as they walked down a side street. “I know I got you into this mess.”

Eleanor shook her head. “Mr. Goldswaggle is the one who started it. Besides, if you hadn’t hit him with that branch nut-“

“It was a lucky shot.” Daniel admitted, though he suddenly felt very proud of the accuracy of his throw.

“You are a very skilled thrower. You must practice often.”

“Actually, I do.” He replied. “I’m on – or rather I was on my school’s baseball team. I’m the starting center fielder.”

“Center fielder?” Eleanor asked curiously.

Daniel smiled to himself. “You’ve got to have a lot of different skills when you play center field. Most people think that shortstop or catcher’s the toughest fielding position, but a center fielder has to have a sharp eye for fly ball trajectory, good speed, very keen glove work, and of course, he needs a strong throwing arm.”

Eleanor smiled weakly as he proudly described his position. “I’ve heard of this game before, but I don’t know much about it. It must take great skill to play.”

The grin Daniel had as he talked about baseball faded, as he realized he’d probably never play it again. It was one of the few things he really enjoyed about school, and he’d hoped he might make something of a career of it. His dream was to get a baseball scholarship to Penn State, and then go on to play for the Phillies, and lead them to a World Series. Of course, he would have needed to pick up his grades to get in to Penn State, and his hitting would have to improve greatly if he had any chance of playing in the Big Leagues. The reality that he probably wasn’t going to be able to play professional baseball when he grew up was something Daniel didn’t like to think about. He tried not to think about it when he played, because then, the game stopped being fun, and instead was a platform for failure which was hard to bear.

“You don’t have to really be good at baseball to play it.” He told her with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “Nobody plays it here?”

Eleanor looked at him sympathetically and responded. “There was supposed to be a baseball league here in Cherry Landing several years ago. It lasted for decades, but fewer and fewer newcomers were interested in the game, and few Realmsborn were interested in committing to play regularly. The league was disbanded about ten years before I was born. I’ve never seen a game played.”

“That’s too bad.” Daniel said quietly.

“But my father did.” Eleanor offered, hoping to cheer him up. “He loved watching the game, and he played until he hurt his knee. He doesn’t talk much about it anymore, but I know he would love to meet you if you played it in the Otherworld.”

“I’d like to meet your father.” Daniel said. “That constable said that he was a bug catcher?”

Eleanor lowered her head, clearly embarrassed to admit it. “That’s true. He is in charge of culling the cherry bug population in Greetingsport.”

“Well, he must do a good job, because I haven’t seen a single one here- that is, except for the ones I accidentally broke out of your buckets last night.”

Eleanor smiled weakly at the compliment, but her head remained down. “He’ll be happy to hear that.”

Seeing her discomfort, he bit his lower lip, and asked her quietly. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No.” She looked up and shook her head. “It’s just that – bug catcher is a labor-class job. I just don’t want you to think less of me because of my family’s class.”

Daniel furrowed his brow. “The mayor didn’t say anything about any class system. Are labor-class families looked down upon here?”

“Not exactly that.” Eleanor answered hesitantly. “It isn’t like … most upper classes treat us fine, I mean. And there really isn’t any formal class system set up by the government, it’s just that … well, the social system of the town finds its own level. There’s the ruling-class, the administrators and the town leaders, like Constable Moray. There’s the artisan-class, who are the merchants and the craftsmen, and then there’s the labor-class, who work the low skill or unskilled jobs that need doing, such as bug catching.”

“So, since you’re born into a labor-class family, you’re not allowed to become something more … higher up?” Daniel inquired.

“Not necessarily.” Eleanor frowned as she tried to explain. “But usually, the classes stay within their own. A potter trains their children to be potters, a constable officer’s children are usually the first to be selected to be new constables, and so on. Even when skilled positions aren’t passed on within a family, apprenticeships are usually kept within a class. Everyone on that social level tends to know each other, and usually inter-marry their families together.”

“It sounds and awful lot like some sort of caste system.” Daniel decided disapprovingly.

“Well, there’s nothing written in law about it.” Eleanor explained. “It’s just how things work out. If you are in the labor-class, there is really little chance you will be able to learn a more skilled position. Really, your best chance to jump a class is to marry into it.”

Daniel paused for a moment, and responded. “That sounds like a pretty crummy reason to get married.”

Eleanor nodded silently in agreement. Daniel saw that she was still holding the side of her face. She had found a strip of cloth and was pressing it against the wound to try to stop the bleeding. It was now again that he remembered his shoulder, which still ached, though he had thus far managed to ignore the pain. Luckily, it was his off-shoulder, and he still had the cannon slung over the other one …

“Oh, damn it!” He growled to himself, smacking his own forehead with the palm of his hand. Eleanor looked over at him, startled. He shook his head angrily and continued. 

“I forgot I had this hand cannon-thing that whole time with Goldswaggle!”

This made Eleanor giggle despite herself. He looked at her, and chuckled to himself as well.

“I mean, I don’t even know how to fire it, but I might have been able to hold him at bay with it. I completely forgot that I had it this whole time!”

“You know, it’s for the best that you didn’t.” She told him, suppressing her giggles. “Constable Moray might have decided you intended to kill him, and then he probably would have had you banished.”

“Oh.” Daniel paused for a moment, and then responded in mock confidence. “Then it was entirely on purpose!”

This made Eleanor laugh out loud, until doing so irritated the wound on the side of her face, and made her stop. Even so, she grinned silently as they continued through what looked like a poorer, less bustling part of the town.

She stopped suddenly in front of a small, somewhat dilapidated clay house. There were stacks of buckets lining the wall, similar to the ones Daniel had seen her with the night before. This gave him the indication that this was the Bug Catcher’s house.

Briefly unsure of what to do, Eleanor looked at him, and looked further down the street.

“The healer is just a bit further down the street.” She told him. There’s a big sign in front so you can’t miss it.”

Daniel was confused. “You’re not going?”

Eleanor shook her head defiantly. “She’ll just bandage it and give me some of those pore beans. It needs to be stitched.”

She had a concerned expression on her face as she gently squeezed the rag against the deep wound on the side of her face. Daniel looked at her sympathetically.

“There’s someone here who will help you?” He asked her.

She shook her head reluctantly. “No, this is my home. My father is at work but I have some supplies, I can do it myself.”

Daniel was shocked. “You’re going to stitch up your own face?”

“Just the wound.” She answered wryly, with a playful smile on her face. “I don’t need to have too many scars on my face.”

Eleanor said it in a joking manner, but he could tell she was worried about the scar she would almost certainly have to carry, long after the terrible gash healed. Daniel suddenly felt a renewed sense of guilt for putting her in this position.

“I’ll help you.” He told her.

“But you’ve got a dislocated shoulder. You need to get it set back in place.”

“You know what’s wrong with my shoulder?” 

She nodded confidently. “I have cousins who tend to get their shoulders dislocated more than they should. I know what it looks like.”

Eleanor paused, and then followed up cautiously. “If you would like, I could …”

“You know how to pop it back in?” He asked her.

She nodded, and with his blessing, came over to him, braced him against the side of the house’s wall, and carefully readjusted his shoulder blade back into its proper position. 

The sharp pain of the procedure caused Daniel to yelp in pain, but he quickly bit the cry back down, trying to show strength in front of his new friend. As the sharp pain of the moment passed, he realized that the searing of his shoulder was starting to subside.

“Better?” she asked him empathetically.

He nodded in gratitude and replied. “Much better, thank you. I only hope I can return the favor.”

She led him into the faded red ceramic house, through a living room filled with small crates, and what looked like metal traps, presumably to capture bugs. Everything was stacked haphazardly against the walls, allowing passage through the room, either to a kitchen on one side, or to the two small bedrooms along the back of the small house. 

Eleanor took him into the kitchen, which was brightly lit due to the afternoon sun shining directly through the small round windows along the wall. There was a porcelain washbasin on one side, with a small plug drain at the bottom. Next to it were two large barrels of water. They were sealed with rubber-like lids, and looked to be the newest items in the house. 

On the opposite side of the kitchen was an elongated countertop, sporting a smooth brown ceramic top with wooden cabinets underneath. Hanging over the countertop were several varieties of pots and pans, as well as cups, spoons, and washrags, all hung on an elaborate row of hooks. There was also a rack of ceramic plates and bowls sitting on the counter, and a small cupboard in the corner next to the doorway. 

Pulling a small white box from the cupboard, Eleanor opened it and began setting the contents onto the countertop. 

“There’s a mirror in the cabinet at your feet there.” She told him. “Could you get it for me?”

Daniel crouched down to the cabinet, and looked through the stack of tin pans and glass plates for the mirror. While he looked, he said “This is a neat house. It is a bit small, though. Do you live here with your whole family?”

“Just my father and me.” She responded. “My mother died when I was young, and I have no brothers and sisters.”

“Your cousins live elsewhere?”

She nodded, though he couldn’t see her with his head plunged inside the dark cabinet. “Both of my cousins joined the Farmer’s Commune when they came of age. My aunt and uncle could never afford to have their own home. They both live in the Workers Barracks in the east side of town.”

Daniel remembered hearing something about the Farmer’s Commune during the mayor’s orientation. “So, your cousins are farmers?”

“Yes, along with my best friend, Anna. She was born into the Commune, though. It’s much harder to get in from the outside unless you’re a newcomer with a strong farming background.”

“That rules me out.” Daniel said to himself. “What’s the deal with this ‘Commune’ thing anyway?”

“Well, it’s kind of its own town, actually. They all work together to maintain the corn and wheat farms, which they all own equally. Everyone is portioned an equal amount of work and responsibilities, and when the harvest comes, they divide up the profits from selling their crop.”

“Sounds fair.” Daniel said, pulling himself out of the cabinet after successfully finding the foot-long mirror stand he’d been searching for. He placed the mirror on top of the counter, and looked on as Eleanor found a small bottle of dark liquid. Catching his curiosity, she held it up to him for inspection.

“It’s an antiseptic.” She told him, and then she stepped in front of the mirror, slowly removing the rag she’d been holding to her wound. As she did, Daniel shuddered involuntarily at the nasty-looking gash running along the jawline of the right side of her face, from an inch below the temple to just parallel to her mouth. 

There was a lot of blood all over that side of her face, and the rag was soaked in it. However, it seemed that she had managed to curtail the bleeding, for the most part. Even so, the wound looked horribly painful. 

Then, Eleanor leaned in to the mirror, carefully watching herself as she brought the bottle up to the side of her head, just above the gash. Just below her chin, she had placed a small ceramic dish to catch the antiseptic as it ran down her face.

Despite bracing herself beforehand, she let out a quiet whimper as she disinfected the wound in this way. Just seeing her do this made Daniel cringe, and suddenly the gnawing pain still lingering in his shoulder didn’t seem so bad. 

Once she’d finished, she dipped a clean strip of cloth into a small bowl of water she’d filled while Daniel was under the cabinet, and cleaned the blood and antiseptic from around the wound. As she did, she tried to casually continue the conversation.

“What about your family? Did you all live together?”

Daniel, still shaken by the painful display he’d only shared vicariously, hesitated before answering.

“I … I don’t have a family.”

Eleanor turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“I’m an orphan – I don’t have any parents. I don’t have any brothers or sisters either.”

Eleanor looked shocked to hear this, as she seemed to be on the verge of tears. Flustered, Daniel tried to comfort her.  

“It’s not a big deal, I’ve been alone for so long, I’m used to it … well, not alone, exactly. I spent most of my childhood at a boarding school. There were houseparents, and lots of classmates who I was boarded with. They just weren’t – you know, my actual family or anything.”

“That’s horrible …” Eleanor said breathlessly.

Daniel shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that bad. It’s not like I was in some sort of Dickensian – I mean, I got a good education there, and they did their best to make it seem like a stable family environment …”

Her eyes welling up in tears, Eleanor looked away in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, it’s just … I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have my father.”

Feeling unsettled that he had upset her so much, Daniel offered, “Well, on the bright side, there’s nobody back on Earth who will really miss me all that much.”

Eleanor suddenly burst into tears, Daniel’s gesture of optimism having the exact opposite effect that he’d intended. With an awkward kind of panic, he desperately tried to get her to stop crying, insisting everything was fine, and begging her to cheer up. After about a minute, she composed herself, wiping her tear-stained face which clearly ached from the punishment it had taken over the course of the day. 

At last, they were ready to begin the stitching. She had brought out a very fine needle and a spool of thin, waxy thread which she told him that she’d gotten from a trader selling it as surplus. It was supposed to dissolve under the skin over the course of a few weeks, and is very popular amongst most healers. The Greetingsport healer, however, refused to stock any.

“She can barely be considered a healer at all.” Eleanor said of her bitterly, as she threaded the needle. “She never really bothers to see what’s wrong with her patients, and she gives out pore beans for everything.”

“What are pore beans?” Daniel asked.

“They’re opiates … like mild pain killers, but they don’t really treat anything, and they tend to be addictive. Rumor has it that half the Town Council is hooked on them.”

Daniel recalled how he had seen Mayor Colby eating what he had thought were jellybeans during the orientation, after he got flustered by the questions that Daniel and Xin were asking. It didn’t occur to him at the time that the Mayor might be popping pills, much less some sort of narcotics.

“Well, you seem to know a whole lot about healing people.” Daniel told her. “You should become a doctor, and give this so-called ‘healer’ a run for her money.”

“Only Masters are allowed to study actual medicine.” Eleanor said sadly as she knotted the threaded needle. “And Labor-Class are not allowed to apprentice under a healer, not that I would want to study under-“

“What’s a Master?” Daniel asked, as yet another new term had been introduced without explanation.

“It’s hard to explain …” Eleanor sighed deeply. Clearly, she was preoccupied with her resentment with the town’s healer, and her disappointment in not being able to become one herself. As such, Daniel decided to let the matter drop for the time being.

When Eleanor handed Daniel the needle, ready to begin stitching her wound, he began to feel very queasy. He realized how unprepared he was to go through with the procedure as she gave him instructions on exactly what he should do. His mouth grew very dry, and his head was swimming as she finished her tutorial, and sat herself on a stool, waiting expectantly for him to begin. 

His hand trembled slightly as he brought the needle up to the bottom of her wound, right along the back of her cheek. It was not very deep along the lower part of the gash, but the thought of piercing her soft skin and running the metal barb through it, dragging along a length of twine, nauseated him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. As he brought the tip of the needle right up against the edge of the wound, this feeling gave way, and he keeled over to his side, and vomited all over the floor. 

As Daniel surrendered the half-digested breakfast he’d had this morning, all over the packed dirt floor of the kitchen, a wave of dizziness overcame him, and he collapsed face first into chunky brownish puddle he’d made on the ground.

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