The rococo splendour of the lobby did not faze Padraic, but the thought of selecting his future bride filled him with an unaccustomed nervousness.
“How old did you say they are?” he asked. His companion, Dasan, also unimpressed by the finery of their surroundings, gave a slight shrug as their footsteps echoed loudly through the hall. “Not old enough,” he said. “Not yet. We select them early so they may begin their training. Did you not read the brochures? Do you never listen to a word I say?”
Padraic laughed; the small polite sounds of an uncomfortable man. “Of course I listen. I listen to every word. But this place—”
“Terrifies you? Of course it does. It’s only natural to feel this way. Brides are an expensive business. Choose poorly and your father will never forgive you.”
Padraic fingered the edges of his jewelled collar studs. “I will not choose poorly. Perhaps I will not choose at all. Perhaps I will not meet a girl that I like?”
Dasan laughed. “You won’t like any of them. You will love them all, and furthermore, you will find it impossible to choose a mere one to take as wife. But choose you must. Your father is strict and he will be most annoyed if I do not bring you home to New Ceres with a bride arranged.”
Padraic dropped his hand to his side. Ahead of them, below a magnificent archway of red and gold striped brick, enormous doors of lacquered oak swung inwards to reveal a petite woman in a red embossed kimono standing with her hands clasped. As she bowed in greeting, Padraic noticed the stillness of her hair. Every blonde strand fixed firmly in its place. “Her hair contains as much lacquer as those doors,” he whispered, nudging his friend.
“Shhhhh,” replied Dasan. “Madam Lotus, what a delight to see you again. I swear you have not aged a day since my last visit.”
Madam Lotus bowed again, deeper this time. The two men stopped a few feet before her. Dasan bowed in return; the slight condescending motion of the exceedingly wealthy. Padraic’s bow was deeper, fuelled by uncertainty.
“My Lord’s firstborn is in need of a wife,” said Dasan. “We have come all the way from New Ceres.”
Padraic felt the blood cooling in his veins as Madam Lotus cast her eye upon him. His face was the first point to come under scrutiny; the arch of his brows and the shape of his nose. Next, his shoulders and torso. Madam Lotus took one delicate step forward and then another. She moved around him, examining him as if he were an alabaster sculpture.
“I have many brides to choose from,” she said, licking her lips. “But three of my girls in particular will most suit your needs, I think.”
“Madam Lotus is never wrong,” said Dasan. “You’d do well to follow her advice.”
“I will choose my own wife,” said Padraic.
“Of course you will,” said Madam Lotus. She clapped her hands once and a bevy of assistants appeared from the darkness glimpsed behind the wooden doors. Without laying a hand on his person, they whisked Padraic swiftly through the doors and out of the lobby. When Padraic glanced back, he saw that Dasan had remained behind to talk business with Madam Lotus.
“Aren’t you coming with me? What if I make the wrong choice?” he cried, his voice reverberating off the distant walls.
Dasan turned his head. “You will choose well. I have every faith in you, my friend. Every faith!”
The heady scents of honeysuckle and passionflower filled his senses as Padraic was blindfolded and led down passages that twisted and turned. His query about the need for a blindfold was met with peals of delicate laughter and still more floral scents; some familiar, some not. When at last the veil was lifted, Padraic found himself in a chamber, its walls thickly padded with elaborate tapestries. The chamber appeared ancient, yet it smelled like a summer garden. The assistants fussed around him, flitting and tittering like birds. In a couple of heartbeats he was seated on a low lounge, his back propped up with cushions plumped and fluffed. His shoes were whisked away, replaced by slippers. Firm hands massaged his shoulders. A tall drink stood by his right hand and beside it a tray of sweetmeats. He began to relax, overcome with drowsiness. I do not have to choose a wife, he reminded himself. I have only to examine the girls on offer.
“You must not make your choice based on beauty alone.”
Padraic sat up with a start. He had felt no additional pressure on the lounge, not noticed the older woman settle herself beside him. Severe in her kimono and immaculate make up, she might have been Madam Lotus’s sister.
“They are all lovely, but each possesses individual talents and traits. You should consider your business needs as you make your selection. Ask them questions. Ask them anything you like.”
A young girl entered the chamber. Her face lit up with joy when she saw Padraic. As he opened his mouth to speak, another entered the chamber, followed by a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth.
Padraic felt his heartbeat race, his throat constrict with imagined thirst. They were so very young, and yet they held themselves with the grace of mature women. As they nestled at his feet, he felt as if he had known each one for ages. Comfort and familiarity, that was what he felt.
The girls spoke their names in turn: Karis, Toba, Mischi, Jaede, Coral and Roma. Padraic glanced from face to face, searching for anything that might make his decision easier: a blemish or a frown. A sense of falseness or insecurity.
“Questions,” said the older woman beside him. “Ask them questions.” She had not offered him her own name.
“Where are you from?” Padraic asked none of the girls in particular.
Some sort of signal passed from the older woman to the seated girls so that Karis understood she would be the one to answer.
“I was born on Alpha Neuve, my village so small it does not have a name. My parents were farmers once, but now their lands lie fallow with grain blight. I have eight brothers and sisters and all of them go hungry. Should I be selected for marriage, my bride price will set them up on new, fertile land. No one will starve again.”
Karis’s eyes shone with held back tears as she told her story. Each of the other girls nodded in sympathy.
“My parents are dead,” said Jaede, “killed by a tsunami.”
“My sisters and I were raised by my grandmother. Now she is too old to work and we must fend for ourselves. I am the eldest,” said Toba.
“Things are not well on the outer rim,” said the older woman, intruding into Padraic’s absorption so much that he almost scowled at her. “Those who are able flee to New Ceres and the other successful colonies. Those who cannot must manage as best they can.”
Padraic listened to more of the girls’ stories, nodding with sympathy at the harshness of their lives. The older woman soon steered the conversation in other directions. Directions designed to showcase the girls’ wit and charm.
Amidst discussions on the value of poetry, Padraic leaned forward and questioned Karis suddenly. “How does it make you feel, to be sold as a wife so that your family may prosper? Would you not come to resent that it was you who paid the price?”
Karis smiled kindly, her lips set firmly with determination. “I would consider myself fortunate indeed to have a husband such as yourself.”
When Padraic’s meeting with the girls concluded, the older woman escorted him down a wide, marble corridor and into another lounge area very similar to the first. This room was filled with reclining men and attendants, all women, serving refreshments. A haze of pale blue smoke hung above them, scenting the air with the aromatic familiarity of tobacco and herbs.
The lounge beside Dasan sat vacant. Padraic took his place and nodded as an elegant woman in a pale pink kimono served him iced tea in a tall frosted glass.
Dasan smoked, drawing deeply on the nargeelah’s elongated stem. Padraic watched the smoke curl and dance within the glass bowl of the apparatus.
“Were you able to choose?” Dasan asked after exhaling an exuberant lungful.
Padraic shook his head.
“It is no matter,” said Dasan as he passed the stem to his friend. “Your body will have chosen for you. The selection rooms are designed containing sensitive monitoring apparatus. Your vital signs were recorded as you encountered each girl, your conversation closely assessed. All data will be cross referenced. There is one amongst the many – trust me on that.”
Padraic pressed the stem against his lips, then paused. “They were all so lovely. So young, and yet—”
“Not like ordinary New Ceresian girls, is what you are thinking.” Dasan laughed. “And indeed they are not. Madam Lotus charges a great deal of money for the skills that she imparts. When you get your bride home, the true value of the purchase will become evident.”
Padraic nodded, still holding the stem of the nargeelah without smoking. “They are wives, Dasan, not purchases.”
“As you say.” Dasan clicked his fingers to summon an attendant. “My friend here would like a massage. He is very tense.”
Padraic sat up suddenly, as if waking from a dream, the nargeelah stem in his hand forgotten. “No,” he said, “I would not like a massage. I would like to speak with Madam Lotus about my wife.”
The attendant led him to another chamber, this one smaller than the others, featuring a single low lounge beside an elaborate floral display. Next to the lounge, Madam Lotus waited and beside her, Karis, holding her hands palms up, one cupped delicately inside the other.
Padraic glared at Madam Lotus. He wanted to yell at her, tell her that he couldn’t be expected to make such an important decision under so much pressure. That the time allowed for choosing was not enough. How much time would ever be enough? But Karis’s eyes shone with adoration, fixed on his every step as he walked across the chamber floor. Madam Lotus and the attendant left them alone, exiting without a word.
Karis reached for his hand and motioned for him to sit beside her on the lounge. “I know what you are thinking,” she whispered. “That it is too soon to know if you can love me. Too soon to be the judge of a matter of such importance.”
She placed his hand between her own. Such tiny palms, he thought. Such delicate fingers. “But you should know that I feel no such hesitation. My own heart is free of doubt. I knew as soon as I saw you. You are the one, Padraic. You are the one I want.”
Padraic cupped her face in his hands, his thumb brushing the soft peach skin of her cheek. He stared into her emerald eyes and knew that she meant every word of it.
“How old are you, Karis?”
She blinked, sending shivers down his spine. “I shall be fifteen standard Earth years old when you return for me. I shall be a woman fully grown, and ready to be your wife.
As he took her in his arms and kissed her, Padraic felt an object being pressed into his hands. He looked down at an ornate porcelain key inlaid with jewels.
“Take this key back to New Ceres with you as a sign of good faith,” Karis explained. “When you return, you will exchange it for me.”
Padraic nodded. The key was symbolic. A receipt for the down payment on her bride price.
“We will meet again in one year’s time,” she whispered, and then in a heartbeat, was gone, led away by yet another of the nameless attendants that served as staff in Madam Lotus’s world.
When escorted back to the rococo lobby, Padraic was shocked to find Dasan tossing a porcelain key in his palm. A key almost identical to his own. “But you already have a wife,” he said.
Dasan brought a finger to his lips as the two of them were escorted back outside the building to where a shuttle waited to return them to their vessel.
Padraic still clutched his key in his hands. Dasan had pocketed his already, his mind moved on to other things.
Padraic waited for the appropriate moment. “But what of your wife? What of Loren?”
“I have grown tired of her,” Dasan said at last. “Loren no longer pleases me.”
“But what of your children?”
Dasan shrugged. “What of them? My children belong to me. Loren has no legal claim to children sired through surrogates. The eggs come with the wife — one of the advantages of doing business with Madam Lotus. No messy family complications should you change your mind. It’s all part of the bride price.”
Padraic considered Dasan’s words as the older man made a string of business calls and notations in his Planner. He wondered what would become of Loren, but felt too uncomfortable to ask the question.
Instead, Padraic stared out the shuttle’s window at the cityscape below, admiring the ordered shapes of civilisation: the straightness of roads and the brilliance of blue pools inlaid like jewels.
“Loren will be taken care of,” Dasan admitted at last. “She will be offered an apartment and employment. The company will see to it. Such details are their concern, not mine.”
“But she is your wife!”
“No, my friend, she was. Business is business. I am a primary executive merchant. I work hard to keep your father rich. I deserve a new wife as reward.”
Padraic slipped a hand into his pocket to wrap his fingers around Madam Lotus’s jewelled key. Its surface felt smooth and cool against his fingertips. He turned it over and over again, mulling over the uncertainties this day had brought forth. I will take good care of Karis, he promised himself. I will never be like Dasan.
“Why has the ship stopped?”
“Why are we not moving?”
The complaints of business travellers and the chink-chink of dice on tabletops muted the soft music seeping from the walls of the cruiser’s first class passenger lounge. The music, designed to pacify nervous travellers, irritated Padraic as much as the lounge itself did. It seemed as though he spent half his life in spaces such as these, luxurious pauses separating where he had been from where his father would have him go next. And always, the inevitable attendants proffering refreshments or whatever other service was required.
As the slender girl in charcoal silk bent forward to place a cocktail by his armrest – a drink he had not asked for – he grabbed her wrist. “What is the problem,” he demanded. “Why have we stopped?”
The girl stood still, waiting patiently for Padraic to release her. “The captain apologises for the inconvenience,” she said. “A refugee transportation container from the outer colonies is stranded in this sector. We are legally obliged to offer assistance.”
Padraic released her as murmurs of “outrageous” and “unbelievable” filled the space along with a series of exasperated sighs.
Dasan pulled his favourite possession from his pocket: an antiquated fob watch believed to be from Earth itself. He flipped its gold case open with his thumb and frowned, then slouched his body into the comfortable recesses of the lounge chair.
Padraic knew that the girl who had been serving drinks would whisk the empty glasses away and next time she returned it would be with a selection of game boards and dice, although the dice would be unnecessary. Men such as Dasan carried their own in their pockets as lucky charms. Dasan’s dice were made of ivory; carved from the tusks of long-extinct Earth beasts.
Alongside the game boards would come the nargeelahs; one to be placed strategically amidst each group, the stem to be passed from lip to lip as a gesture of equality and friendship.
Dasan and his companions would get gently stoned and gamble away a few thousand credits to help the time pass.
Padraic stood suddenly, leaving his drink untouched. No one challenged him as he left the lounge and his companions to the rattle and clink of precious ivory and crystal flute.
Padraic did not know where he was headed, nor, indeed, how far it was possible to explore within the confines of the ship. He decided to walk until somebody stopped him. He did not worry about getting lost. No matter where he went, eventually there would be a man or a woman in a crisp braided uniform to guide him gently back toward the comfort of his cabin. Just as there always had been his whole life.
Now and then he would dip his fingers into his pocket and touch the key to reassure himself that the events of the past day had been real. He pictured Karis, her wide green eyes shining, and he wondered what became of Madam Lotus’s other girls – the ones not selected as wives.
As Padraic left one corridor behind and entered the next, he expected to encounter many travellers like himself and Dasan, but the cruiser’s bars and private lounges were empty. The absence of sound disturbed him. He could not even hear his own footfall on the luxuriant carpet. My world is hermetically sealed, he told himself. Every part of it controlled at every point.
Eventually he reached an elevator. Should I go up or down, he wondered. Down seemed the more appealing selection so he chose it. Moments later he stepped inside, and in the seconds following his brief descent, the doors parted and Padraic stepped into an empty space. A storage bay of some sort, he presumed. His footsteps echoed loudly on the metal floor as he continued his exploration. As he walked, he began to hear faint muffled sounds from somewhere up ahead.
At the far side of the space he found another elevator, this one only offering the option of down. He entered its battered-looking metal cage, travelled downwards for a few moments. When the doors parted he stepped out into another world.
The smell hit him first; the stench of unwashed bodies, followed abruptly by the sound of children crying amidst a sea of utter disorganisation. Everywhere he looked were people standing, sitting or lying prostrate. Some huddled together in groups, cowering from those others who ran amongst them, knocking bundles of goods to the ground in their wake. The air was thick with chatter, so much so that it was impossible to think. Impossible to breathe in the cloying, human stink.
And yet, Padraic did not turn around and call the elevator back. He stood still for a moment to calm himself, blinking imagined smoke from his eyes. As he accustomed himself to the smell, he began to notice little things. The people around him were not all of the same race. Nor were they of the same social caste. As he stepped amongst them, moving forward through to whatever gaps became apparent, he noted that while some of the refugees – for who else could they possibly be – were dressed in tatters, others were garbed not so differently from himself in finely spun, expensive cotton shirts and business slacks. Their shirts were soiled from the rigours of uncomfortable travel, but the quality was evident, as it also was in their mannerisms. The way they carried themselves.
And yet others seemed as if they had never known the safety of home. Women with lank hair and bony arms clutched at filthy, squalling children. Some tried their best to sleep, although Padraic wondered how anyone could ever hope to sleep in such confusion. The faces of the sleepers were still as stone. As if, having finally laid their heads down, they would stay that way forever.
Each step took him further from the safety of the elevator, deeper into the struggling human tide until he was sure he could feel its very pulse. No one touched him. No one bothered him, and this only added to his sense of confusion. He was not one of them, even if his cleanliness was the only thing keeping them apart. Why weren’t these people hanging off his clothes begging him for help?
He walked on amidst the chaos. Abruptly, one voice distinguished itself from all the others. Padraic looked to its source and saw a woman with her hair bound up in a scrap of purple cloth. She moved amongst the mass calling out a single name. The name of a lost child, he presumed, after the swift movements of two boys playing tag attracted her attention.
Her face has seen too much harsh sunlight, he thought. She is probably not as old as she looks. Her gaze fell upon him for a moment, then moved on as she continued her search.
He did not intend to follow her but a jostling in the crowd behind him forced him forward, and so forward he continued, listening to the fire in her voice as she cried “Henna! Henna!” over and over.
The woman carried a cloth bag and a red plastic container slung across her back. She trod carefully, and Padraic saw that her boots, though worn, were sturdy and practical in design. Her calves, too, were strong and muscular.
He followed as close as he dared, trying to keep a respectable distance, yet worried about losing her in the crowd. Eventually she ducked below a makeshift awning. When he moved the cloth aside, she was gone.
Unsure of himself, both why he followed her and where he was headed, he paused for a moment to catch his breath, amazed that he could no longer distinguish the dirt of the people around him. His sense of smell had become acclimatised, as had his sense of personal space. He had stopped flinching when others accidentally brushed against him.
Padraic craned his neck in search of the woman, strained his ears to try and catch the sharpness of her voice. Suddenly there it was again, this time behind him.
“Why are you following me?” she demanded as he spun around.
“I’m not,” he began.
“You were following me just now,” she stated. “What is it you think you want?”
Padraic considered. “Who is Henna?”
“Who are you?” she replied.
“No one of consequence.”
“Indeed,” she said, making a show of eyeing his fine white shirt and jewelled collar studs. “How unfortunate for you that your captain was obliged to stop and pick up common refugees. How tiresome it must be—”
Padraic had opened his mouth to argue when the sound of another woman’s wailing sang out clearly above the bustle and hubub of the throng.
“Henna!” cried the woman beside him as she ran towards the terrible sound, her quarrel with Padraic dismissed. Padraic followed her instinctively, trying to keep up without tripping over boxes, bags and bundles of well-worn possessions.
The crowd thinned to reveal a woman seated on a mat surrounded by other women. She clutched a bundle to her breast and cried. The most mournful sound Padraic had ever heard. He did not need anyone to explain the scene to him. The bundle was her dead baby.
The women around her made comforting noises but there was nothing they could do.
“The guards will come soon to take the babe away,” said a woman’s voice. Her again. The woman with the headscarf he had originally followed. “The rules of transportation are very strict. Those who die are to be jettisoned into space. There can be no exceptions.”
“Is this Henna? The one you were calling?”
The woman shook her head. “Henna is my daughter. I do not know this woman’s name.”
“I’m sure the authorities will perform the—”
“These women are of the Urzu faith,” the woman explained. “Her dead infant must be washed in clean water and blessed, then wrapped in a clean cotton shroud before burial. The ritual is vital to the passage of the soul. Without it, the babe will walk in limbo.”
Padraic studied the crying woman’s face. The redness of her eyes, the lines of pain etched by grief.
“Then we must see that it is done.”
The woman in the headscarf shook her head. “You rich have no understanding of anything. No knowledge of anything practical.”
Her eyes scanned the crowd again in search of her daughter. Padraic followed her gaze to where a girl of about twelve years stood clutching a bucket to her chest.
“Henna! Don’t run off like that. Stay where I can see you.”
Henna looked up at her mother, then returned her gaze to the crying woman with the dead baby.
“This container was never designed to transport so many people,” explained Henna’s mother. “There is not enough water to spare for washing. The red plastic squares everyone carries? They hold our drinking allowance. We are permitted no more than that.”
“I have plenty of water. I will go back to my cabin and get some for her,” said Padraic.
“That is very kind. But do you really think your friends will let you back down here bearing such a gift? Look around you. These people are exhausted. Most of them are glad to have made it this far. They’re not thinking straight. They haven’t considered what might be available on the ship that is transporting us the final leg of the journey to New Ceres. Should they consider it, and decide to help themselves, I doubt your people could stop them.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Alla, my name is Padraic and I am a man of my word. I will bring her water and I will be discreet about it.”
Alla smiled sadly. He could tell she didn’t believe him.
The murmuring of the crowd lessened as a bearded man in pale blue robes pushed his way to the mat where the bereaved woman and her companions were sitting. One of the companions stood to greet him. Instinctively, the crowd inched back to give them space. Some moved away for additional privacy, but the gaps were soon filled by others keen to watch.
The companion and the bearded man conversed in low whispers. Below them on the mat the woman with the dead baby cried, moving back and forwards in a rocking motion, clutching her child like she would never let go.
“Five hundred cubic centimetres of drinking water each day is our allotment. Barely sufficient to sustain life,” said Alla. “We are due no more until tomorrow. There were supposed to be sonic showers set up for us but I haven’t seen them. Our evacuation was sudden. Fortuitous. We were allowed to bring only what we could carry. A new life awaits us on New Ceres in every respect.”
“I will bring water,” said Padraic.
“There isn’t time. The guards will know about the death already,” she said, gesturing to surveillance nodes embedded in the low ceiling. “They won’t be far away.”
Over Alla’s shoulder Padraic could see the blue-robed priest, standing, listening with a look of stillness on his face.
The woman’s sobbing ebbed. She seemed exhausted, as if she had no more tears to cry. Suddenly another sound separated itself from the general murmuring of the crowd. A young girl’s voice, clear and shrill. Once again Padraic craned his neck for a better view.
Alla’s daughter, the girl called Henna, moved from person to person, the bucket clasped tightly to her chest. “Just a spoonful for the baby. One spoonful you can spare, no more.”
At first there was no reaction. Some shunned her defiantly, others lowered their gaze so as to not have to meet her fierce stare. But most, after a prolonged pause, reached for their precious red plastic container, unscrewed the cap and dribbled a little splash into the bucket. Just a little, but a little from the many would be enough.
Finally, when she had coaxed enough water to make a sloshing sound, Henna took the bucket to the woman with the baby and placed it at her feet.
The priest nodded, understanding, the beginnings of a smile cracking his rugged features.
Padraic smiled too, but Alla did not. “I swear we have only made it this far by Henna’s rat cunning,” she said. “She’s a good-hearted child. Tough, but kind. It’s her begging that’s kept us fed these past two seasons. There are still some decent city folk who’ll throw scraps to a hungry child. But the water’s no use without the white cotton. Henna doesn’t understand.”
As the priest crouched down beside the woman, someone cried out “The guards are coming!”
All but one of the mother’s female companions leapt to their feet, linking arms to form a protective circle around the mat. Padraic and Alla were shoved in separate directions as a contingent of uniformed men pushed their way forward, the clanking of their body armor contrasting sharply with the murmuring of the crowd.
Unsure at first of what to do, Padraic took his place in defense of the mat. He studied the red and gold braid of the guards’ uniforms, the glossy sheen of the weapons gripped tightly in their gloved hands as they approached.
“This is not necessary,” he said calmly. “The mother wants only—”
The nearest of the guards shoved him roughly to one side with the butt of his weapon. Another stepped forward, pushing Padraic to the ground. In that moment, the crowd of refugees surged and Padraic’s voice was lost in a sea of angry outcries. Others stepped in to fill the spaces separating the mat and the guards.
Padraic clambered to his feet, gripping his bruised flesh as he heard the sharp click-clack of weapons being armed. Surely they will not fire upon these innocent people, he thought. Surely not. Above, the glassy node of the surveillance system observed impassively.
He searched for Henna and Alla, but all he could see were the heads and shoulders of enraged refugees. Behind him, the atonal chanting of the priest began. Would the ritual words be enough without white cloth for the baby’s shroud?
The crowd surged again. As Padraic raised his arms to steady his balance, he noticed the fine white linen weave of his own shirt.
Quickly, he turned his back on the guards. He needed time to think but there was no time. Padraic fought his way to where the mother sat, pulling his shirt over his shoulders as he moved.
“This garment is clean,” he shouted to the priest. “I have only worn it this hour past. It is of the finest cotton. Will it suffice?”
The priest glanced up from his ministrations. He did not understand Padraic’s tongue, but he looked down to see what he was clutching in his hands. Suddenly he nodded enthusiastically, reaching out to take the shirt.
Padraic stepped back as the priest spread the shirt on the mat. With the bucket beside him, the priest gestured to the mother’s companion. The woman gently prised the dead infant from the mother’s arms. She passed it to the priest and he stripped it of its swaddling, chanting as he worked.
He held the infant tenderly, scooping handfuls of water from the bucket, anointing each of the babe’s tiny limbs in turn as he chanted with a slow, steady rhythm.
With each moment, the anger of the crowd intensified. Padraic clutched his bruised shoulder, expecting every minute to hear gunfire.
But the guards did not fire. Suddenly, in unison, they shouldered their weapons and waited for reinforcements. They stood as still as automatons, eyes staring blankly ahead. The noise of the crowd fell away, layer by layer, until all that could be heard was the priest’s chanting.
Finally that sound too ceased. The circle of women parted and the mother stepped through, her white shrouded baby clasped tightly in her arms. She presented herself to the guards and allowed herself to be led away accompanied by priest and her companion.
It was over. The gentle murmuring of regular conversation returned as people separated into small groups, linking their arms, laughing with relief that matters had not become much worse.
Padraic, still clutching his shoulder, watched Henna stoop to retrieve her empty bucket. It was only then that he noticed a detail he had somehow missed earlier. A detail concealed by the oversized shirt she wore. The child’s left arm was missing past the elbow.
“A land mine. When she was five,” said Alla who had been watching him the whole time. “She says the missing flesh sometimes pains her, although I don’t see how it could.”
“I will buy her a new arm,” said Padraic, his eyes shining.
“On New Ceres?” Alla shook her head. “Such technology is forbidden, as you well know. She has managed without it these past seven years and she will continue to do so.”
“I can make her whole again,” he said, placing his hands on Alla’s shoulders. “I have great wealth. I can make anything happen.”
Alla smiled kindly. “The gift of your shirt was much appreciated. But my daughter does not need your help.”
He looked to Henna again just in time to see her duck behind an awning as two uniformed guards approached, these ones with their weapons holstered.
“Sir, we have instructions to escort you back to the first class lounge,” said the nearest of them.
“I will find you!” He called back at Alla as the guards marched him back towards the elevators. “I will take care of you both.” Alla smiled again as the guards took him away.
“You have been gambling, I see,” laughed Dasan. “This time, the shirt off your back. You must pay better attention – who knows what you will lose next time.”
Not nearly as much as I almost gave away for nothing, Padraic thought, heading for his suite.
“Hey!” Dasan called after him. “I want to know the details. Is it true you went wandering amongst the refugees? I take my eye off you for five minutes…”
Back in his suite, Padraic pulled the porcelain key from his pocket. He tossed it in his palm, feeling the weight of it against his skin.
Dasan’s face appeared around the corner. His eyes shone from the effects of too much drink. “There are plenty of well-bred hostesses on this ship. You have only to ask—”
“Dasan,” Padraic said, “I am not ready for marriage. I have seen nothing, I have been nowhere outside my father’s realm. But I will honour the girl who is linked to this key. I will not allow her family to starve on my account.”
Dasan smirked. “Is that what she told you? A heart-wrenching tale of poverty and desperation?” He threw back his head and laughed heartily, his body slouching against the door frame. “Those girls are bred for the bride market. Obedient wives, sold before they were even conceived. None of them have ever starved. Why do you think Madam Lotus runs her business so far away from civilised space? Laws are lax. Not everywhere is like New Ceres, my friend.”
Padraic’s fingers tightened around the porcelain key.
“Put a shirt on,” said Dasan. “Then come back up and have a drink.”
As Dasan left, Padraic held the key up high. Elaborately engraved, indulgently ornate, it disgusted him, as did everything it represented. He threw it across the room as hard as he could, shattering it into pieces against the far wall.
“Valet – the refugees on board this ship. Where are they to be set down?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” replied his room’s communications node, “That information is not currently available.”
“You will let me know the minute it is available,” he snapped.
“Certainly sir,” replied the valet.
“I will find you, Alla,” Padraic said to his mirror reflection. “I will find you both and make you safe.” He wondered what his father would say if he caught his son sheltering a refugee woman and her amputee child in his home, but found for the first time in his life he didn’t give a damn about what his father thought.
First published in New Ceres online magazine, June 2007