by Phyllis Haldursdottir
Lydia watched from the shadows of a river willow above the expanse of the Loire marshes as Pyare negotiated with the stooped dark shrouded figure. He shook his head and waved his hands, showing fingers. The shrouded figure turned and walked away. Pyare held up his arms in surrender, shouting something, and the booter stopped. Further negotiations ensued. Then he raised an arm to summon them.
Lydia followed as Serpina hurried down from the copse where they had been hidden. Lydia was surprised to find that the booter Pyare had engaged as their guide was an old woman with lively dark eyes, her nose and mouth hidden behind the scarf that also enveloped her head. The dark eyes took the trio in with little curiosity and then turned immediately to disappear into the tall tangle of reeds and shrubs. Pyare signaled them to follow. Lydia exchanged glances with Serpina and scrambled after the guide through the low brush.
A stench of death and decay accompanied them along the barely visible track. The expanse of marsh was not uniformly flat. Small mounds and sandbars alternated with patches and bands of oozing oleaginous mire. Some stretches of the bog were safe enough to trod through although the wet clay clung to their feet and threatened to cement them in place. They had to move quickly and lightly, the sound of the suctioning mud reminding them of the fate that awaited them if they lingered. The old woman outpaced them, seeming to skim over the surface of the marsh, not waiting on them.
Lydia glanced back over her shoulder. Pyare was nowhere in sight.
Lydia caught a movement in the reeds out of the corner of her eye. Serpina had seen it, too. “Rats,” she breathed in Lydia’s ear, “Big rats.” They quickened their steps to reach a mound that rose out of the muck. Once over the top, the populated far bank their destination was now in view. Their mud clotted feet descended onto a broad marshy plain dotted with little islands of vegetation. Here the water visibly flowed and the guide stopped to examine the water’s edge until she found a number of partially submerged rocks which she lithely stepped across to firmer ground. They were to follow. Serpina went first, splashing quickly across, a look of satisfaction brightening her worried countenance. Pyare indicated that he would bring up the rear and had Lydia proceed ahead of him.
Scrambling across Lydia caught the shadow of something flitting over the surface of the water. she looked up, distracted, thinking that it was a large bird and missed her step, a foot plunging deep into the icy flow, soaking her thoroughly. She felt strong hands grasp her arm to help her onto the bank and met the determined look of the old woman and then past her at the object set against the lightening sky.
It was na SOB, a Single Operator Biowing. She had flown them herself when she had been stationed in the transport pool at the Commonwealth embassy in Greater Houllas, the capitol of the United Slave State Republics. They were used by IOTA for surveillance. She could tell by the SOB’s altitude that it was surveying a large area near the bridge crossings. And she knew enough about its telemetry that there was a certainty that their variances had been registered. The scanners would indicate their heat signatures as data sets, executing alignment searches for anomalies in the performing patterns, and relay the biofo to an entangled platform monitor, sometimes half a planet away.
The old woman was making urgent noises and pointing to the underbrush prompting them to take cover. Lydia glanced back over her shoulder. Pyare was nowhere in sight.
Could it get any worse? Lydia glanced around, wet but alert. It was just Serpina and her and the old woman to guide them to the far bank. They had to keep going. But once they got there, without Pyare, they would have no idea how to continue. The look on Serpina’s face saying she understood their predicament, they hurried behind the old booter who did not once look back, lithely skipping from the marshy island to the wider rubble strewn shore and then up stone steps to the settlement that crowded the river’s edge.
Lydia paused at the top of the stone embankment to look back. There was no sign of the brash young man who said he had a plan. The old woman pointed down a long street crowded with homes and shops and set off in the opposite direction. They were on their own.
The sun had risen above the morning haze and sounds of doors slamming and feet thumping and scurrying as daily activity came into the light. Their rough work cloaks were not out of place among the passing populace, many riding or pushing velos, opening shops, setting up tables in the crowded narrow lanes. There was a queue for the java bar with its large copper kettles. And they were lost. Pyare was to meet up with someone who would then take them overland through the Massif. But who was he, and how could they find him?
“You are not the Pyare we are looking for,” Lydia spoke frostily. “We’ll just wait here until the Pyare we want meets with us.”
Serpina touched Lydia’s sleeve and nodded in the direction of the java bar where a man had detached himself from the throng of java juicers and was coming their way.
Lydia perceived the threat. He was of average height, perhaps a little shorter than her, a muscled dark face with a wispy chin beard, wiry in a cocksure manner. If she had to, she could subdue him, and as a reminder, the stiletto in the sheath of her snake skin jacket nudging a rib beneath the soaked burnoose. She kept him in focus as he walked past them and met his sideways glance. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him pause a few paces past them and then turn. Serpina stepped into the shadows of the nearby doorway.
“Hey, you two look lost,” he said approaching and eyeing them curiously. His knit faux-laine hat had earflaps and he was trying on a smile. “Maybe I can help you,” her leered on the word “help”.
“Do you know Pyare?” Serpina asked emerging from the shadows.
The man looked startled and then laughed. “I am Pyare! Why do you ask?”
“She means a different Pyare,” Lydia replied, suspicious of the man’s intent and his addressing them in standard rather than in the local patois. “A taller man, younger.” Their disguise as laborers was thin at best.
The man sighed, “Yes, that’s the way it always is, isn’t it? Always taller and younger.”
“Do you know another young man names Pyare?” Serpina tried.
“Ah, a love interest, perhaps? I wish I were that lucky Pyare.”
Serpina blushed. “You are not the Pyare we are looking for,” Lydia spoke frostily. “We’ll just wait here until the Pyare we want meets with us.”
“You are all wet!” dark Pyare said, pointing at her and shaking his head. “You are not from around here that is easy to tell. If you stand around too long, you will be reported for soliciting. Then what will you tell your tall young Pyare?” He laughed to show his big teeth.
“What would you suggest we do?” asked Serpina sweetly.
The man’s face brightened. “Ladies, please, let me assist you. I have a domicile close by, and a high speed heat extractor which belongs to my landlady but she will let me use it and we can dry your wet clothing.”
Lydia thought to refuse but it occurred to her that they had nowhere else to go and the man’s offer would allow them time to reconsider and reconnoiter how to proceed. Serpina had apparently come to the same conclusion. “So kind of you, and you are right, we are strangers here. Lead the way.”
Following the man who called himself Pyare down the narrow lane between the backs of houses and vacant lots, barking dogs and scrambling cats, feral or illegally kept as pets in violation of the Pax Victoriana Proclamation On The Interaction Protocols With Nonhuman Sentient Beings, Lydia spoke in a bare whisper her caution. “I don’t trust him but we have no choice. To remain in public will only expose us to discovery. Be alert to his actions and stay close to me. I can deal with him if he tries anything.” She set her lips resolute with what she was capable of as an assertion to Serpina.
The man in the knit hat and floppy flaps glanced over his shoulder at the sound of her voice and grinned. “Just a little further,” he indicated with an arm outstretched in the direction they were heading. Faces appeared in windows as they paraded by, a woman scrubbing a stairwell entrance to a doorway looked up briefly to pass a wrist across her brow and glance at them with questioning eyes. They halted abruptly in front of a square structure with white plaster walls and a red faux coral tile roof. A low barrier wall enclosed the dirt and weeds of the unattended yard. They followed him to the blue door where he stopped and rapped on it sharply three times.
“I live around the back.” He pointed to the moss covered flagstones making a path leading around the corner of the house. “Madame will likely let you use the expeller to dry your cloak and trousers.” A look of confusion flashed across his face. “I’m sorry. I do not know your names.” And he shrugged at the afterthought, “in case Madame asks.”
Lydia was about to speak her name when she remembered the false papers Leon had provided her. “My name is Odette and this is. . . .” She indicated Serpina as she realized that she didn’t know the name the young girl was using.
“Addie!” Serpina spoke up, smiling at her secret joke.
“Very well, Addie and Odette, Madame may require a small consideration for the use of her machine,” he said as the door creaked partially open and in the narrow shadow of the darkened room behind her, a woman in a bright headscarf frowned at them. The man talked rapidly in the local patois, gesticulating dramatically, pointing to the house and then to the two women in the rough brown worker’s cloaks, all the while smiling and bowing in abject supplication.
The woman in the doorway was not amused or convinced by the obsequious display and looked them over suspiciously. She spoke forcefully, pointing to the palm of her hand, and with a final word slammed the door.
A hookah on the self above the headboard dangled its ebony tipped hose over the side, a shapeless blanket crumpled beneath it.
The man who called himself Pyare tried to hide his disappointment by laughing. “Madame is a busy woman but she will allow the use of the extractor if you are kind to her. She is in a bad mood because people take advantage of her generous nature. You must be generous in return.”
He led them around the corner of the larger dwelling to a smaller square structure with similar white plaster walls and a dingy yellow door. An orange cat scampered away at their approach. He fumbled with the latch and then shouldered the door open. He laughed as he led them inside. “The door always sticks. I should complain to the landlord but then she’d ask for the rent.”
They were standing in a small square room with a barred casement window on one wall, an alcove with a mottled and stained uni, a large scorch mark on the wall behind it. A stale scent assaulted their noses, an air that had not been disturbed in a while with hints of burnt wood and charred organic matter over the pungency of sour mold. A mattress on a low frame was pushed against the windowless wall. A hookah on the self above the headboard dangled its ebony tipped hose over the side, a shapeless blanket crumpled beneath it. A large wardrobe stood against the wall next to the alcove. The stone paved floor revealed its previous purpose as a garden shed.
“If you will remove your wet clothing, I will stand outside and Addie can hand them to me. And if you have an appreciation for Madame’s generosity, now would be most useful.” He stepped outside and pulled the door closed.
“I think this is called getting in on the ground floor,” Lydia said shucking the wet burnoose. The extent of the soaking the mired pants had taken was obvious. She felt along the seam at the back. “And my rear has come apart.”
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