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Day One Hundred and Thirty-one: Among the Low People (REVISED)

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

This is another story that I submitted to Worth100.com for their “Jewelry” writing contest. I think it’s an improvement over the original, so I thought I’d let everyone take a look.

———————

Othioto made sure to lock the door after he let Sestl in. The room was a cluttered mess, with papers, notebooks, broadsides and drawings set up everywhere. Sestl smiled when he looked around. Or at least he seemed to smile, but with the Low People, Othioto could never be sure. He still wasn’t very good at reading their expressions. “Wow, Cantur. Writing a book?”

The use of his assumed name sent a twinge of anxiety through Othioto’s chest. It mixed with the hope that today would be the last day he had to answer to it.

“Let me straighten up,” Othioto said. “It’ll only be a minute.”

While he picked up papers and tried to put them into some kind of order, Sestl moved over to the window and looked down at the street below. “Huh,” he said. “Would you look at that. A bunch of Blues in this part of the city.”

For a moment, Othioto wanted to panic. He glanced in the mirror just to reassure himself that his disguise held, and it did ”“ a flat, grey-skinned, mottled face looked back at him. He was covered in sores and warts, cracks in the skin that opened and bled. His teeth were broken and stained, his eyes were dull and flat. He twisted the opal ring on his index finger and sighed with relief.

Like the Low People he was pretending to be, he was hideous, yet he was adorned with jewels and gold and clothes of the finest fabric and cut. He wore dozens of gold hoops in his ears, pulling the lobes down nearly to his shoulders. He had a ring on every finger, and they were set with gems that sparkled in even the dimmest light. Silver thread ran through his woolen cloak and fine linen shirt, and he wore a choker of rare shells and stones. The Low People prized their finery, and for good reason.

Othioto joined Sestl at the window and watched the small group of Necoli pass by.

Strictly speaking, no Low Person was supposed to lay eyes on the Necoli. Centuries of tradition demanded that they avert their gaze, but it was hard not to look. They were tall and slender, with skin the blue of a radiant autumn sky. Bright and iridescent scales were scattered about their bodies and caught the sun, throwing off glimmering colors, and their hair shone like polished silver. Necoli wore no garments to cover their beauty, and they possessed no jewelry ”“ they never saw a need for either. They called themselves the Children of the Sky and claimed descent from the gods that oversaw their world.

“Damned Blues,” Sestl growled, and Othioto started at the disgust in his voice. “Think they’re so damned perfect.” He turned away from the window. “You ever actually meet one of ”˜em, Cantur?”

“I… Actually…”

“I did,” Sestl said. “Once. One of ”˜em came down here ”“ in person, no less – to buy some cookware, of all things.” He chuckled. “Some woman with a whole troupe of bodyguards around her. Poor thing looked terrified. Like she was going to turn ugly just by being outside the Walls.”

Othioto put down a bundle of papers. “Maybe she just… didn’t know better,” he said.

“What does she have to know?” Sestl asked. “Believe me, if she could’ve gotten her pots and pans any other way, she would have. All those Blues would be happier if we just went away, you ask me.” He shrugged. “But then where would they get their pots and pans?”

“I don’t know,” Othioto said. He pulled a chair around and Sestl settled into it with a sigh. “Maybe… Maybe if the Necoli knew more about… us, they wouldn’t be so afraid to come out here.”

Sestl’s eyebrows shot up. “You kidding, Cantur?”

“No,” Othioto said quietly. “I really think so.”

The unavoidable moment was twisting Othioto’s guts. He licked his lips. “Sestl… We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we?”

“Sure,” Sestl said. “Since I saved you from getting the soul beat out of you at the summer festival.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe you wandered out there without any pants on.”

Othioto cleared his throat. “Yes, well -”

“You know, I still tell that story, too. I think you get drunker every time I tell it.”

“Sestl, please.”

“And I have to confess something, Cantur.” He was able to hold a serious look on his face for a few seconds before he cracked up. “I nearly didn’t even step in. I was just laughing too hard.” He started cackling, rocking back in the chair.

“Sestl!”

The other man slowly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Cantur. It’s just…” He reached out and poked Othioto in the shoulder. “It really was funny.”

“Yes,” Othioto said. “I guess it was.” He started twisting the opal ring on his finger. Sestl’s eyes flickered down to it and back up. “Sestl, there’s a reason why I did that. And it wasn’t because I was drunk.”

He took a deep breath and looked Sestl in the eyes. “I can trust you, Sestl, can’t I?” he asked.

Sestl seemed surprised by the question. Surprised enough that he took a moment to think, and answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Yeah, Cantur,” he said. “Of course. You know you can.”

“Okay.” Othioto stood up and straightened his shirt. “Sestl,” he said, a little louder than he meant to, “I am not who you think I am.” Sestl was looking at him with a carefully blank expression. “My name is not Cantur,” he said. “It’s Othioto.”

Sestl’s eyes went wide at the name and how it had been said. Low People didn’t have names like that.

“Sestl,” Othioto said. “This is who I am.” With a swift motion, he pulled the opal ring off his finger. In a few heartbeats, his body shifted and changed, revealing his true Necoli form. It felt strange to be wearing clothes, looking like this. He tried not to scratch.

Sestl shot out of his seat and tried to open the door. He pulled at the handle, whimpering under his breath.

“No! No, Sestl, please! Don’t do that!” Othioto reached out and took Sestl by the arm. “Look at me, Sestl,” he said. He grabbed the man’s chin and turned his face towards him. “Look at me!”

It took a moment before Sestl cracked his eyes open, and then he clenched them shut again. A moment later, and he was looking again. This time, he kept his eyes on Othioto’s face. The Necoli smiled, and Sestl flinched. “My name is Othioto,” he said again. “I’m from the university in the Inner City, and I’ve been living among the Low People for the last year, learning your ways.” He held up the ring. “This allows me to disguise myself.”

Sestl looked from the ring to Othioto and back again.

“I’ve been putting together a book,” Othioto said, smiling. “All about the Low People and how you live. It’s really fascinating, and it’ll be the first book of its kind ever published.”

Sestl just stared at him.

“You… you might say something,” Othioto said after a moment. He slid the ring back onto his finger and felt the familiar shift as he changed. “There,” he said. “That might be easier.”

“Take it off,” Sestl growled. He wasn’t looking at Othioto anymore.

“What?” He started to reach out when Sestl wheeled around and punched him. Othioto dropped to the floor, whimpering in pain. His jaw throbbed and tears came to his eyes. When he looked up, Sestl was standing above him, his fists clenched and his face red.

“You come here,” Sestl said. “You come here with your fancy ring, and you think you can be one of us?” He delivered a swift kick, and Othioto doubled over. “You think this is fun, Blue?” He kicked again. “Are you having fun writing your book about us?” He moved to kick again, but Othioto held up a hand.

“Please, Sestl!” he croaked. “Please, stop. Stop, Sestl, please…”

Sestl put his foot down and watched the disguised Necoli writhe on the floor. He crouched, his knees popping. “You have until sunset,” he whispered. “Then I tell everyone.” His hand flashed out and he grabbed Othioto’s hand. He twisted the ring from his finger and watched as Othioto changed back. Sestl stood up and put the ring in his pocket. Then he turned around to the door.

“Wait, Sestl!” He stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Sestl,” Othioto said. “I don’t… I don’t understand.” He got his hands under him and tried to get up. He dropped back to the floor.

“No,” Sestl said, not looking back. “No. You don’t.”

He left Othioto there, on the floor amidst his notes and papers. Sunset was a few hours away, but for now, Othioto didn’t feel like moving.

Day One Hundred and Twenty-nine: Among the Low People

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Othioto never could get used to bowing to his own kind. He lowered his head like everyone else around him as the tall, graceful Necoli strode through the street. Strictly speaking, the Low People weren’t supposed to even look at the Necoli when they passed. To do so would be enough of an offense that a summary execution on the spot would be perfectly permissible.

It really wasn’t necessary for him to look, though. He knew what the Necoli looked like – he was one, after all. Tall and slender, with skin the blue of a radiant autumn sky. Bright and iridescent scales were scattered about their bodies and caught the sun, throwing off glimmering colors, and their hair shone like polished silver. Necoli wore no garments to cover their beauty, and they possessed no jewelry – they never saw a need for either. They called themselves the Children of the Sky and claimed descent from the gods that oversaw their world.

No one was supposed to look at them, but everyone did. At least once.

Othioto looked down at his own hand – the hand not truly his own. It was the dirty gray of the Low People, the people of no name. The skin was rough and seeped blood where the joints cracked the skin. His nails dug into the dirt in the street and they broke and splintered and stank. The only thing that mitigated their hideousness was the rings.

All Low People wore them. They bedecked themselves with jewelry – rings, earrings, necklaces, whatever could be made or bought or stolen. The rings on Othioto’s gnarled hands had been gifts from the friends he had made while living among the Low People. All but one.

He wore a simple silver band on his first left finger. The band was set with a shining blue opal that shimmered in the sunlight. With that ring, his form changed. With that ring, he became one of the Low People, the dispossessed and the despised. He had spent hours locked in his rooms at the university, taking it off and putting it on again, shuddering at the feeling of metal on his finger.

When he looked in the mirror, his first thought was of disgust. His second thought was of discovery.

Soon, he began walking among the Low People as one of them. Dressing in clothes was a perverse thrill at first, one which quickly wore off the more he realized how important they were. The Low People judged him harshly and quickly, and it took many visits before he managed to understand how to judge them back. Once he did, he found friends in places he never knew existed.

“Oy. Cantur.” Othioto glanced up, hearing the name he’d taken for himself. The Necoli had passed while he was in thought, and everyone was about their business again. The man behind him was every bit as ugly as he appeared to be – broken teeth, an eye that was scabbing over from an infection he’d fought off months ago, great open sores on his arms and hands. But he wore dozens of thin gold hoops in his ears, pulling the lobes down nearly to his shoulders. He had a ring on every finger, and every ring was set with a gem that sparkled in even the dimmest light. He had silver thread running through his woolen cloak and fine linen shirt, and a choker of rare shells and stones.

“Ah. Hello, Sestl,” Othioto said. He couldn’t help flinching as he took the man’s hand. “Glad you didn’t get too held up.”

Sestl shrugged. “You know how it is when the Blues come by. You nod, you bow, you move on. I see you got your knees dirty.” He grinned and Othioto blushed. His own clothes were nowhere near as nice as Sestl’s, but it was still embarrassing to have that pointed out. “Hey.” Sestl dug into his pocket and fished out a wide brass ring. “Lookit this, Cantur. Got it from that shop down by the tannery.” He held out the ring and Othioto took it. “I reckon I can get it engraved, maybe an inlay? What do you think?”

Othioto turned it over in his hand. “I think it looks fine as it is,” he said. “Simple is good.”

“You sound like a Blue, Cantur,” Sestl said, clapping him on the shoulder. Othioto’s stomach clenched. “You want I should just prance around in my simple skin too, like one‘a them?”

The thought was horrifying. “Gods, no, Sestl,” Othioto said with a laugh. “None of us need to see that.” The other man laughed with him and took him by the arm. They started to work their way through the shopping-hour crowd.

“So, Cantur,” Sestl said. “Why’d you want to see me? Going off on another one of your trading junkets?” That was the excuse Othioto used to explain his trips home. He needed to consolidate his notes, write down his thoughts, and make sure his research was sound. Being a wide traveler also helped paper over any unusual behavior, too.

“No,” Othioto said. “Something a little different than that.” He led Sestl to the room he’d been renting, refusing to say anything more.

The room was small but comfortable, lined with books and notes. He had drawings stuck to the walls, pages and pages of handwritten text on every surface. Sestl whistled when he saw it all. “Wow,” he said. “Looks like someone’s been busy.” He turned to Othioto. “Writing a book, Cantur?”

Othioto felt the blood rush from his face. He hadn’t expected Sestl to catch on this quickly, even without having read anything. He swallowed, hard. “Sestl, please. Sit down.” He pulled a chair over, and Sestl sat, keeping a wary eye on him.

“What’s going on, Cantur?” he asked. “You in trouble or something?”

“I don’t know,” Othioto said. “Maybe.” He took the other chair and sat across from Sestl. “We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we?”

“Sure,” Sestl said. “Since I saved you from getting the soul beat out of you at the summer festival.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe you wandered out there without any pants on.”

Othioto cleared his throat. “Yes, well -”

“You know, I still tell that story, too. I think you get drunker every time I tell it.”

“Sestl, please.”

“And I have to confess something, Cantur.” He was able to hold a serious look on his face for a few seconds before he cracked up. “I nearly didn’t even step in. I was just laughing too hard.” He started cackling, rocking back in the chair.

“Sestl!”

The other man slowly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Cantur. It’s just…” He reached out and poked Othioto in the shoulder. “It really was funny.”

“Yes,” Othioto said. “I guess it was.” He started twisting the opal ring on his finger. Sestl’s eyes flickered down to it and back up. “Sestl, there’s a reason why I did that. And it wasn’t because I was drunk.” He took a deep breath and looked Sestl in the eyes. “Can I trust you?” he asked.

Sestl seemed surprised by the question. Surprised  enough that he took a moment to think, and answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Yeah, Cantur,” he said. “Of course. You know you can.”

“Okay.” Othioto stood up and straightened his shirt. “Sestl,” he said, a little louder than he meant to, “I am not who you think I am.” Sestl was looking at him with a carefully blank expression. “My name is not Cantur,” he said. “It’s Othioto.”

Sestl’s eyes went wide at the name and how it had been said. Low People didn’t have names like that.

“Sestl,” Othioto said. “This is who I am.” With a swift motion, he pulled the opal ring off his finger. In a few heartbeats, his body shifted and changed, revealing his true Necoli form.

Sestl dropped to the floor and put his face into the rug.

“No! No, Sestl, don’t do that!” Othioto reached down and picked Sestl up by the arm. “Look at me, Sestl,” he said. He grabbed the man’s chin and turned his face towards him. “Look at me!”

It took a moment before Sestl cracked his eyes open, and then he clenched them shut again. A moment later, and he was looking again. This time, he kept his eyes on Othioto’s face. The Necoli smiled, and Sestl flinched. “My name is Othioto,” he said. “I’m from the university in the Inner City, and I’ve been living among the Low People for the last year.” He held up the ring. “This allows me to disguise myself.”

Sestl looked from the ring to Othioto and back again.

“I’ve been putting together a book,” Othioto said. “All about the Low People and how you live. It’ll be the first book of its kind ever published.” Sestl just stared at him.

“You… you might say something,” Othioto said after a moment. He slid the ring back onto his finger and felt the familiar shift as he changed. “There,” he said. “That might be easier.”

“Take it off,” Sestl growled. He wasn’t looking at Othioto anymore.

“What?” He started to reach for his friend when Sestl wheeled around and punched him. Othioto dropped to the floor, whimpering in pain. His jaw throbbed and tears came to his eyes. When he looked up, Sestl was standing above him, his fists clenched and his face red.

“You come here,” Sestl said. “You come here with your fancy ring, and you think you can be one of us?” He delivered a swift kick, and Othioto doubled over. “You think this is fun, Blue?” He kicked again. “Are you having fun writing your book about us?” He moved to kick again, but Othioto held up a hand.

“Please, Sestl!” he croaked. “Please, stop. Stop, Sestl, please…”

Sestl put his foot down and watched the disguised Necoli writhe on the floor. He crouched, his knees popping. “You have until sunset,” he whispered. “Then I tell everyone.” His hand flashed out and he grabbed Othioto’s hand. He twisted the ring from his finger and watched as Othioto changed back. Sestl stood up and put the ring in his pocket. Then he turned around to the door.

“Wait, Sestl!” The man stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Sestl,” Othioto said. “I don’t… I don’t understand.” He got his hands under him and tried to get up.

“No,” Sestl said, not looking back. “You don’t.”

He left Othioto there, on the floor amidst his notes and papers. Sunset was a few hours away, but for now, Othioto didn’t feel like moving.