SAUN 8, 718
You want me to do what?
It was times like these that I wished I could utter a complaint. Though, even I could talk, it wasn’t likely that Leon would let him get in a word, edgewise. The hawker never seemed to run out of things to say, and none of it was of any interest whatsoever. I had been willing to suffer the man’s ramblings when I thought he had a worthwhile job for me. The man was a repeat client, so he at least deserved some consideration for the delivery he needed me to make.
But a child?
“His ma needed to run some errands this morning and we couldn’t just leave him home alone, ya know?” the man said, patting the child clinging to his leg atop the head. The boy—Yori, Leon had named him—was no more than five or six, a real scrawny lad with muddy brown hair that fell into his eyes. “He’s well-behaved, believe me. Won’t give you a lick of trouble, no sir, and his ma should be waiting for you at the front door.”
I looked from father to son, hesitation evident in my eyes. Leon sensed my unease and I watched as the threads of desperation formed in his Tangle. He reached out and squeezed my shoulder. An odd gesture, given that our only relationship was that of sometime-employer and employee. “Look, there isn’t anyone else I’d trust to do this. You’re reliable, and that’s what I need.” After a moment, Leon added. “And your pay will reflect my need, have no doubt.”
I sighed, knowing that Leon had made an undeniable case for it. Especially the part about the nels. The hawker knew he had sold me on the job as well, releasing my shoulder to squat at his son’s eye level. The two shared a conversation too quiet for my ears, not that I was that interested in what was shared. More than likely, Leon was trying to convince the child to leave in the company of a stranger and, wisely, the Yori was probably resisting. With good reason, too. I had no desire to harm the child, but how exactly would Leon know that? It was, I thought, an absurd presumption to make after a few successful courier runs for him.
Yet, here we were. Leon gently broke his son’s hold on him, shoving him towards me. Stooping down, I gripped the child by the hand and began to guide him out of the Bazaar square. It was awkward moving given our height difference, but I was in no mood to haul the child around on my shoulders. He protested my hold against him, as any unruly child would when his movement was restricted, but he was too small to free himself. Nor was I willing to let him loose; the aisles were crowded with shoppers this trial and the last thing I needed was to lose Yori in a crowd.
As we parted through the mob into the thoroughfare immediately outside the marketplace, Yori finally broke the silence. “I’m not a baby,” the boy whined, batting at my forearm with a closed fist. “I don’t need to hold your hands.” Looking down, I considered the child’s complaints. The crowd had thinned out outside the Bazaar and Leon’s home wasn’t that far away. And, most importantly of all, I was not the kid’s father; I didn’t have to act like I was. So, after giving Yori a stern look as if daring him to try and run, I released his hand.
And the boy bolted.
Cursing silently as the child darted down a side street, I scrambled after him. The child was quick as he scampered through the detritus, but I had the longer legs. Still, the brat gave me quite a chase through the narrow way, weaving through pedestrians out for a mid-trial shopping trip. My lungs burned at the sudden exertion, but my legs stayed strong beneath me as, after nearly a bit of pursuit, I drew up beside the child. Reaching out, I snagged the boy by the nape of his collar and yanked him off-balance. Yori stumbled but didn’t fall out of my grip. Then, unwilling to give the child a second chance, I lifted him like he was a sack of flour underneath one arm and retraced my steps back to the main thoroughfare.
“Put me down!” Yori exclaimed, his squirming more intense than when I was holding his hand. His face was flush, though whether it was from embarrassment or exhaustion I could not decide. His Tangle suggested, given its bright orange hue, that it was the latter. This time, however, I was not interested to consider Yori’s complaints. Let him wish he had been more respectful as he observed the Almund shopping district from his new perspective.
The beauty of the more commercial areas here in the city is that they were designed for people walking through with loads in their hand. Even with the crowds dotting the thoroughfare, I was able to pass through without getting hung up by the shoppers. Quite a few stared at me as I walked by, a pair of feet flailing about beneath my arm, but I didn’t pay them any mind. And, more striking, no one accosted me.
Sadly, this city had grown used to the sight of children being snatched away by adults.
My arm began to ache from the lively weight as residential area began to bleed into the commerce. Yori had fallen silent again, but it seemed to sense my discomfort. “Please, put me down,” he begged, tugging at the sleeve of my shirt that his face had been pressed against. “I promise I won’t run. I feel sick.”
Shifting my grip on the child so that I held him under both arms in front of me, his feet bouncing against my knees, I looked him in the eye. Then, freeing one hand, I held it in Yori’s face, pinky extended while the other fingers were clenched together. It was, I remembered, the universal symbol of promise and not a gesture to be used lightly. I could see the seriousness form behind the boy’s eyes as he considered his options before, with a loud sigh, wrapped his tiny pinky around my own. “I promise,” he said, solemn.
I set him down.
“Are we there yet?” Yori asked as he straightened his clothes, looking around with wide eyes. I shook my head, gesturing to the side street we still needed to cross before he reached the neighborhood Leon’s family lived in. I continued forward for a few trills before I realized that the child was not walking beside me. Turning around, ready to snatch the kid up again before he bolted, I realized instead that the boy was cowering in the street, arms draped over knees and face buried in their crooks.
Sighing, I walked back to stand beside the boy, squatting down and resting my hand on his back. The boy flinched at the touch, looking up to see who was there. Shockingly, I realized Yori was happy that it was me. “There’s a monster that lives down there,” he said, voice quivering. Fear had seized the kid’s tangle. What could have terrified the boy?
It took me a moment to register that Yori was looking past me now, face slack and bone white. And then I heard the growling.
Whirling around, I was knocked into the child as a feral dog threw its entire body into me. I landed on my shoulder and, rather awkwardly, followed through with a backwards rolling, landing knee first on the dirt road. The dog had landed within reach of me, so I cuffed him across the back of the head, sending it scrambling out of range. It didn’t run away completely, though, so I pushed myself to my feet and moved to put myself between the animal and Yori, who was curled into a ball, his body wracked in a fit of sobbing.
I crouched low as the dog launched itself at me second time, bracing myself for the impact. As the dog collided with me, I grabbed the fur on its stomach with my right hand and its neck with my left, just narrowly avoiding its snapping jaw, before slamming it back first onto the ground. A sharp kick between the mutt’s ribs finally sent it running back down the street it came from. I quickly checked for any visible wounds on my arms, finding none, before moving to check on the boy.
Besides a scraped knee, Yori was physically unharmed from the attack. His emotional state, however, was one that needed to be rectified; the poor kid was still in shock from having to face this “monster.” It just so happened that I knew a thing or two about emotions. Helping the child to his feet, I leaned down to wipe away his tears. He looked into my eyes, then, and I took that as an opportunity to reach into his Tangle, aided by the physical touch, to knot away the child’s fear of the dog and filling that new void with a thread of calm. The effect would only be temporary, but at least for now, Yori would feel confident walking home.
No, he would be a king riding atop a throne.
At first, Yori protested because I thought I was punishing him again, until he realized that I was perching him on my shoulder instead. Unless the kid had climbed a tree or a roof, this was probably as high as he had even been before. Then, Yori laughed, which brought a small smile to my face. Sometimes you needed a child to see the world in your eyes, so you could remember that there was good to be found, even from your perspective.
When we turned onto his street, Yori pointed to a house on the right. “That’s where I live!” he said, giggling. “I drew a picture of Daddy, Mommy, and on the door so I could always find it.” I nodded, following the child’s directions. And the father’s, too, of course.
The drawing was little more than a trio of stick figures holding their hands together in a pair of acute angles, but I was certain to Leon and his wife it was the greatest art one could ever find on Idalos. I could hear a woman’s voice through the window, which meant I didn’t need to stick around and wait for anyone to arrive. Walking up to the doorstep, I hoisted Yori off my shoulder and set him gently down beside him. With a pat on the head, I turned to leave.
And smiled again when I heard Yori exclaim as he shut the door behind him, “Mommy, we scared the monster away!”
Yeah kid, we did.