The inside of the assistant supervisor’s office was as much a jumble as the outside. The floor was bare creetrock. It was discolored but clean. A big crack that ran beneath Laura’s feet had been filled with some sort of clay and smoothed down. Two of the walls had been painted white, but the paint stopped halfway through a third wall, as if someone had run out of material or simply gotten tired.
It was a large room, but it still managed to feel cluttered. A big thick post stood in its center, holding up the roof. More wooden beams, some painted and some not, criss-crossed between floor and walls and rafters at eccentric angles. Crates were stacked in one corner, barrels lined up against another. A long shelf displayed a haphazard collection of old artifacts and lectric scav.
Colorful artwork hung from the walls. The largest was a painting of a beautiful, smiling woman holding up a bottle filled with some dark brown liquid. The portrait, partially hidden behind a row of barrels, stretched nearly from floor to ceiling.
Daylight came in through the open door and through shutters that were cut into some of the boarded-up windows. But shadows filled the deeper recesses of the room, adding to the sense of clutter.
As they entered, they passed a woman slouched on a stool just inside the doorway, her back leaning against the wall. She had a small knife in one hand and a wooden block in the other, which she seemed to be whittling into some kind of misshapen animal. She had something wadded up inside her mouth, and she chewed it slowly while watching Ma and Baby Grace, then Mary and Laura and finally Pa, step inside the building. Her eyes followed them, but she made no attempt to rise. Tyreek led them right past the woman on the stool and over to an older woman who sat behind a desk at the far end of the room.
“This here’s Big Jasmin,” said Tyreek. “She’ll sort you out.”
Like the building in which it sat, Big Jasmin’s desk was cobbled together from mismatched parts. Nevertheless, Laura thought it was magnificent. Its base was made of two iron tables. They were old Merican antiques, lectricmade, but they looked remarkably well cared for, with only the faintest stains of age creeping down their sturdy legs. Across their top was laid a long stone slab, its surface perfectly flat and smooth. The stone was glistening white, but faint veins of pink ran through it, giving it a pretty rosy hue. On the wall behind hung another gray flag, decorated with the same red bisox head Laura had seen at the checkpoint.
Big Jasmin was hunched down over the marbled stone desk, making marks in chalk on a writing slate. When she tilted her head to the side, something glinted from her face, and Laura realized that there were a pair of glass circles covering the woman’s eyes, thick and round and held in place by copper wires that twisted round her ears. Her dark hair was salted with strands of white and blossomed from her head in short, stiff tendrils.
Beside her writing slate lay a stack of papers and a quill poking out from inside an inkpot. They were not parchment, Laura saw, but rather hemp papers, crinkly and brown. Their edges were ragged, not like the neat squares that filled old lectricmade books.
The woman did not look up as they approached. Instead, she continued to study the symbols on her writing slate before turning to a sheet of paper. Taking up the quill with a tap tap to the mouth of the ink jar, she made a tiny, precise mark. Then she replaced the quill and returned to the writing slate. Pa watched her for a moment then cleared his throat.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. My name is Charles Ingalls. This is my wife Caroline and our three daughters. We’re making our way west, Lildaka bound. I was told we could see you about arranging safe passage on the Eighty Road. I’ve a letter of introduction addressed to Supervisor Syed.”
Pa pulled out Tobias Goatherd’s letter from the pocket of his coat.
“What is your business in Lildaka, Mr. Ingalls?” the woman asked without looking up.
“We mean to settle out in the Wastes, ma’am,” Pa answered. “Claim a homestead.”
The woman grunted. It sounded derisive, but it might have just been her own curt way of acknowledging what Pa had said.
“The Wastes . . .” said the woman absently, almost to herself.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Pa. “I was told rains have come again out west. Folks are making a go of working the empty land. They say the Clan supervisory in Lildaka will register a man’s claim up to a hundred acres.”
The woman’s chalk scratch-scratched on her slate. Pa frowned, giving Ma a sidelong look
“Cargo?” the woman asked, finally.
“Just our own supplies,” said Pa. “And a few bundles of furs and hides. Our car is outside. We’ve a few coppers set aside for tolls if your Supervisor will not take payment in kind, but our means are modest. I’m just a poor trapper from the northern woods I’m afraid.”
After a few more terse scratches, the chalk in the woman’s hand paused, hovering above the writing slate. She lifted her eyes, tilting her face upwards no further than absolutely necessary to examine them. Her eyes were magnified and distorted by the glass circles strapped to her face, giving her a bug-like appearance. Her humorless expression only made the effect more comical, and Laura felt a sudden urge to giggle.
The big bug eyes snapped from Pa to Ma to Mary and Laura. Finally, the woman set down her chalk. She placed a stone on top of the sheet of hemp paper to keep it in place. Then she stood, removing the glass eyecovers from the bridge of her nose so that they rested atop her forehead.
“My name’s Jasmin Perez, Mr. Ingalls,” she said curtly. “Senior assistant supervisor. I’ll get you started on your forms. Once your cargo’s inventoried, you’ll have to take the ferry over to see Supervisor Syed. I can’t promise he’ll stamp your papers. Every other week, the Clan Council seems to have a new policy on migrants, with not much reason to any of it. But that’s none of my concern.”
Big Jasmin made her way around the pink stone desk. To Laura’s disappointment, the woman seemed to be of perfectly average height and build. But Laura supposed that, whoever Little Jasmin was, she must be a good deal smaller.
“Send Darryl up on your way back to your post,” Big Jasmin told Tyreek. “GGrita, let’s get the inspection started on the Ingalls family’s cargo.”
The young woman on the stool set down her whittling and picked up a rifle that had been leaning on the wall beside her. She shifted whatever she was chewing to the other side of her mouth and gave them a lopsided smile through her stuffed cheek. She gestured towards the open door, inviting them to lead the way outside.
Out by the handcar, they discovered Jack engaged in a tense confrontation with a fat orange cat. The cat was bigger than the poor little one-eyed pigdog, and he had a mean look to him. Jack, normally so indomitable, cowered beneath the car. The two animals stared at one another through the spokes of the big wooden wheel.
The guardsman that Big Jasmin had called Grita shooed the cat away with the butt of her rifle.
“Oi! Marlo! You leave that doggy alone! Scat you! Go on!”
The cat flinched away from Grita’s waggling weapon, but then he turned and sauntered away slowly, as if leaving at his own discretion, giving Jack one last growl before disappearing into the vegetable patch beside Big Jasmin’s office.
Tyreek shook Pa’s hand and Ma’s and wished them safe travels before turning to walk back the way they’d come. Meanwhile, Grita began to circle the handcar, peering inside. Big Jasmin emerged from the building a few moments later, another writing slate tucked under her arm, and soon they were joined by Darryl, the man they’d passed earlier by the side of the path. A light gray cloak was now about his shoulders and a rifle in his hands.
Laura and her family stood there and watched as Grita and Darryl went through every inch of their belongings. Bit by bit, they unloaded everything from the handcar.
“Don’t worry, folks. We’ll put everything back right where we found it,” Darryl assured them, but Laura could see it upset Ma to have her careful organization disturbed.
Meanwhile, Big Jasmin asked Pa questions, making notes on her slate. Where were they from? What roads had they taken? What had they brought with them? Had any of them been sick of late?
Occasionally, Grita or Darryl would announce some item they’d found in their search, and Big Jasmin would write that down as well. She emptied out Pa’s coinpurse and counted what was inside. She even made Ma and Pa turn out their pockets and had them hand their coats over to Darryl, who patted the garments down and inspected them inside and out.
At one point, Grita slung her rifle across her back and came over to crouch down beside Laura.
“Hi there,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Laura. I’m Margarita. That’s a fine blue carrysack you have there. May I have a look inside?”
Laura looked over to Ma, who nodded. Laura shrugged her batman bag off her shoulders and unfastened it. Grita peered inside.
“My what a pretty doll!” she said, picking up Oprah and handing her to Laura. “And what’s her name?”
“Why, that was my mother’s name! Died during the Second Hyperflu when I was about your age, God rest her. Well, you take good care of your Oprah, sweetheart.”
She buttoned Laura’s bag back up and took a quick look through Mary’s bag.
“Nothing to speak of over here, Big Jaz” she announced.
When all their possessions had been pawed over and tallied and all of Big Jasmin’s questions had been answered, the assistant supervisor slid a cover across the face of her writing slate and buckled it tight. She handed it to Darryl with instructions to ferry Pa across the river to the fort and escort him to Supervisor Syed.
Laura watched them all the way. Pa followed the gray-cloaked guardsman down through the meadow until they were both tiny figures by the riverbank. The two figures walked out onto a square shape that jutted out into the river. Laura had mistaken it for a dock, but then it began to move away from shore, her father aboard. Gradually, the ferry crept further out across the water. Laura thought she saw Pa standing at the boat’s stern, waving, and she frantically waved back, jumping up and down to make herself seen.
There was nothing to do then but wait. As time passed, Laura began to feel apprehensive. Pa knew how to take care of himself in the woods and out on the old number roads, but this place was something new. There were so many people, so many papers, so many rules. Laura found it all overwhelming. She gazed at the big fort across the river, with its looming walls and trails of chimney smoke, and she worried about Pa.
Laura and Mary both waited with Ma beside the handcar. Grita brought them a supper of soymeal biscuits smothered in a chunky fish gravy. The gravy was spiced with peppers that made Laura’s tongue tingle and burn. Mary couldn’t finish hers. She scraped her biscuits dry before eating them and then discreetly set her plate down for Jack to lick the gravy clean. Once Laura’d gotten used to it, though, she decided that the fiery sensation was not completely unpleasant, and she ate every bite.
Big Jasmin returned to her desk and her papers, but Grita kept them company, chatting away with Ma about the latest fashions in Davenport and the best way to gut a fish. The fat orange cat returned, and Mary and Laura lured him close enough to scratch beneath his jowls, much to Jack’s indignation.
Pa was gone a long time. Laura started to pace, hopping up every few minutes to scan the river for signs of his return. Finally, she saw the dark shape of the ferry stirring itself and moving back in their direction.
Three figures disembarked. As they made their way towards her, Laura saw that Pa and Darryl had been joined by a woman. She was nearly as tall as Pa, with black hair pulled back into a long tight braid that coiled down around her neck and back over her shoulder like a pet snake. She did not wear a gray uniform like Darryl’s or Grita’s. Instead, she had on a long coat of a lightweight, sand-colored material that flapped about her knees. It was broad-shouldered and covered all over in pockets. As the woman approached, Laura found herself looking at that coat with longing, thinking of all the things she could carry in all those pockets.
Something else was odd about the long coat, but it took Laura a moment to realize what it was. One of the sleeves was empty. It was folded up and pinned against the woman’s chest where her left arm should have been.
“Ho, Priya!” Grita called out when they were within hailing distance. “Mr. Ingalls! How’d you fare? Good news I trust!”
When Laura couldn’t restrain herself any longer, she ran to Pa, who scooped her up and carried her with him the rest of the way back to Ma and the car.
“The supervisor’s stamped our travel papers,” Pa said when they got there, brandishing a carefully folded sheet of hemp paper. “The toll’s a bit steeper than I might have liked, but fair all things considered. Caroline, this is Priya Syed. She’s captaining the convoy we passed camped by the Big Road yonder. She’s agreed to let us join her company if we’re prepared to leave by first light tomorrow.”
“Oh!” said Ma. She seemed a little flustered by the tall one-armed woman. “Well, that’s wonderful news, Charles. I’m very pleased to meet you, Ms. Syed. Are you and the supervisor . . . ?”
“Malcolm’s my brother,” answered the woman with a laugh. “Half-brother, truthfully. But family counts for quite a bit in Ortega country. We’re of old Deshi stock ourselves, me and Malcolm. You’ll find plenty Syeds out Lildaka way. We’ve got roots stretching back generations, from back before the Hard Years. But Malcolm, he married into the Clan, Old Lucius Ortega’s very own niece if you want to know, and now he’s got himself a big-shot title and a fort full of graycoats to order about. Me, I don’t have any interest in politics. I’m a trader, like my daddy. But I won’t lie to you, ma’am, if you want to run cargo back and forth along the Eighty Road, it don’t hurt to have a brother high up in the Ortega bureaucracy.”
The woman spoke with a confident, unbroken patter, as if Ma and Pa were old acquaintances and not strangers just arrived from far-off lands. She had an air of self-assurance that was somehow both warm and aloof. When she began to lead the way, back up the path towards the Eighty Road, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to follow.
They thanked Big Jasmin and said their farewells to Grita and Darryl. Then they hurried to catch up with the tall, one-armed convoy captain. They followed Captain Syed all the way back to the convoy’s campsite, in the woods just off the Great Eighty Road. Laura could hear voices as they approached. She smelled campfire and a hint of something unfamiliar cooking. She thought of all the new people she’d encountered already that day and about the prospect of soon meeting many more. A feeling of exhaustion came over her.
Ma took her hand.
“Come, Laura,” she said. “I know it’s been a long day. We’re almost at an end.”
They found the convoy in a clearing ringed with trees and ruins. Skinny gray aspens sprouted here and there between the craggy remains of creetrock walls and pillars.
At one end of the camp sat a large wagon. Its four big wooden wheels made the ones on Pa’s handcar look tiny, and it was roofed over with a great billowing tarp made from a colorful patchwork of different fabrics. A clothesline had been strung between the wagon and a creetrock pillar. Tents were spread out across the rest of the clearing, along with a few smaller, two-wheeled handcars.
Suddenly, a loud snort from just over Laura’s shoulder made her jump. Standing right beside her, hidden from their approach by a cluster of ruins, were two enormous horned shapes.
Bisox. Laura had seen a pair once on her trip to the Laketown Market, but not from so very close. These animals seemed bigger. Shaggy hair cascaded down from their mountainous humps. One was a chestnut brown, the other a darker shade, nearly black, but with a patch of white across its forehead and mane. The brown one looked at Laura and grunted, sending shivers through the threads of mucus that dangled from its gaping nostrils. Laura watched the creatures with wonder, her neck twisting like rubber as she passed.
Faces turned towards Laura and her family as Priya Syed led them through the camp.
“Make yourselves at home, Mr. Ingalls,” the convoy captain said. “There’s some nice flat ground on ‘tother side of that wall there, might offer you a touch of privacy. But you’re welcome to set down stakes wherever you can. When you’re settled, come share our fire, and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the folks. Or not, suit yourselves. Just be ready to strike camp at first light. I keep my convoy moving at a steady, sensible pace, but I don’t wait or turn back for stragglers. If you fall behind, you’re on your own.”
Pa thanked her, and he guided the handcar through a gap in the ruins to a clear patch of ground covered with dried leaves and twigs. They began to sweep the area and lay out their bed rolls.
“How much did they take?” Laura heard Ma ask in a quiet voice.
Pa glanced over his shoulder before answering.
“Syed and I agreed on half our coin. Two silver pieces and a handful of coppers. Plus the bullets we picked up from that deserter from the Spear. And I’ve promised a half-bundle of pelts to the sister when we make it safely to Lildaka and a generous commission on the remainder if she can find us a buyer at a good price.”
“Well, not as bad as it might’ve been,” she said.
Laura knew that such talk was not for her. Yet, something bothered her about what Pa had said. Something didn’t add up, and she couldn’t seem to let the thought go. She was just about to speak up when Mary did it for her.
“Pa?” Mary asked, as she rolled aside a chunk of creetrock rubble to make room for her sleeping pad. “You said two silver was half our coin. But we have more silver than that. Don’t we?”
Ma and Pa looked at one another. Pa crept back to the ruins that separated them from the rest of the camp, peeking his head around the other side.
“Mary, may I see your coat for a moment?” he said quietly, after making sure no one was nearby.
Confused, Mary handed Pa her patchwork coat. He turned it inside-out, pinching and prodding at the lining.
“Ah, here we are,” he said, offering the coat back to Mary. “You never fail to amaze me, Caroline. Truly, if I hadn’t known where to look, I’d never have noticed.”
When Mary felt the spot on her coat where Pa indicated, she looked up in surprise. Laura hurried over to feel it too. At first it seemed like just a wrinkle or fold where two different fabrics had been stitched together, but as Laura worked her fingers deeper, she realized there was something round and hard buried deep in the lining.
“Silver?” she whispered.
Pa winked at her.
Meanwhile, Ma had scooped Oprah up from among Laura’s things. She handed Laura the ragdoll, an uncharacteristic look of mischief in her eyes.
“And as for you, Laura,” she said, “that young lady told you to keep good care of Oprah. I know that you will.”
Laura held the doll in her hands, noticing for the first time how much heavier she felt than normal. Prodding the back of Oprah’s head, she felt another lump. She gaped up at Ma and Pa.
“We lied to them?” she whispered. “Big Jasmin and the rest?”
“Pshaw! Lied nothing,” said Pa. “We agreed on a fair price, Malcolm Syed and me, and both of us walked away satisfied with the bargain. A man’s not obligated to disclose everything he owns just because some folks with guns ask him to. Besides, government men like Syed, they expect a bit of honest cheating when it comes to tolls and such. It’s all baked into the system.”
Laura suddenly felt more tired than ever. It had been a very long day.
She lay down on her mat with Oprah in her arms, telling herself she just needed to rest for a moment before they joined the strangers for supper by the campfire. But, before she knew it, her eyes were closed, and she was lost in dreams.