Stealing Souls Chapter Five: The Homeless Boy

This is a continuation of my novel. A new chapter will be published every other Sunday until my first hiatus in April. The full archives can be found here. Please feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts, and thank you for reading!

Over breakfast, Avalon explained what would happen over the next few days. First, they would go to a place called Vienna. In Vienna, they would be separated from each other for a time. They would be examined by doctors, and given whatever they needed to become whole, and then be watched until the doctors were certain they were all healthy. Next they would be taken to a place called Ballston, where they would all be claimed by the Metropiads who would apprentice and raise them. It would be like an adoption fair, with everyone leaving with a family, sooner or later.

Vienna itself was a terrible disappointment to Bernard. He had anticipated the first great underground city. The elegant way that name danced on the tongue belied the simple starkness of the place itself. It was a box of cement and glass, covered in ivy and straddling two pairs of metal rails. Nothing more, except for a lot of tents. Little, white canvas tents, interspersed through thick trees, one for each of them, plus dozens of other children that other adult Metropiads had brought home. The bed inside his was a few inches too short, and his feet had to hang over the edge. It was a reminder that he was not quite what they had gone looking for.

All that was forgotten soon. His pre-quarantine examination had him declared “maximally healthy” and he was given the minimum confinement of one week. While he was in the middle of this week, it felt like eons, but when it ended, it disappeared with the slippery amnesia of a dream.

Before his quarantine, the stumps at the end of his arms had been cut and something silvery injected deep into them. He was told they were called nanonerves; a sort of living machine that had been made by the people who came before him. The details of how they worked had been lost, but as long as they were provided with bits of scrap metal they could reproduce each other, and when they were immersed in human flesh they bound with the nerves and would live off of his own electricity. He was advised to spend his quarantine imagining that he already had hands, and to flex his arms as though he was moving them. These thoughts would somehow prime the nanonerves to grow in the right ways. Avalon had taken detailed measurements of his arms, and promised him that when he came out, they would have new hands ready for him.

They were made of bronze pipes, already slightly browned with age so they resembled his reddish brown hair. Between them and his hands came a small drawstring cloth bag, with five little electromagnets woven into it, one for each metallic phalanx. He was about to ask how he should move it, but the moment he thought of it he felt his fingers twitch spasmodically, clicking against each other. He jumped, and the doctors clustered around him laughed. One handed him a little rubber ball and told him to practice squeezing it to learn control.

He found his feelings impossible to express. The bronze hands felt simultaneously like an impossible miracle about to be revealed as an illusion, and, oddly, something that had been there all along, like invisible hands had been lurking at the ends of his arms all along and only now chosen to reveal themselves, like a friend popping out from behind a curtain saying “boo.” He was happy, but the sort of happiness he felt was so excessive it could not be directly expressed. It felt like if he thanked them with his loudest voice, it would still be inadequate, and his feelings would burst through him like water destroying a dam. So, instead, he stared in silent awe. Over the next few days he found his happiness seeped out in other ways, as though his mind was letting his joy out through a carefully controlled valve, before it made him explode. The meal that night he declared the most delicious of his life (it was only rice with beans and mushrooms). The next morning, when he was asked how well he had slept, he declared it wonderful (a bug bite had woken him in the middle of the night, but otherwise it had been tolerable). He had no difficulty enthusiastically praising the crushed flower necklace Sigyn had made for herself, when ordinarily he struggled to make his approval for anything childlike sound genuine.

Once that jubilation had worn off, he began to notice disappointments once again. The primary one was that he had no family, as of yet. Avalon, he learned, was there to bring him into the fold, not to adopt him, and all his attachment to her felt like a lie. The same was true for everyone else, from Cambio to the doctors who had examined him to all the other children. In his heart, he felt a flicker of regret for leaving Peddler Jack, but he quickly squashed it. It was too late to go back, and the man had never been his father.

He knew he was going to be assigned as an apprentice to some clan of Metropiads, and that would be his family, and that he should be patient. He tried, unsuccessfully. The best he could do was look forward to a chance for a family that would come sooner. Ainsel would emerge from her own quarantine.

Ainsel’s time in isolation had to be longer, because of the extent of the surgery required to remove her extra limbs. In the meantime, the children told stories about her. The waiting kids were used to missing limbs, but deformities like hers were still unusual. Combined with the way she behaved, it was easy for them to turn her into a boogeymen. In a situation where they were all displaced from diverse homes and might have little in common, she was a common enemy with the potential to unite them. Bernard, for his part, refused to take part in this. He was already too old to be their friend, and he felt a special attachment to Ainsel, because he had found her, so a moral stand against demonizing her was easy. At least, it was before she came out.

Ainsel was no stranger to the game the other children wanted to play, with her as a spook. She knew there could be real danger in it for her, as to them she was not quite a person, and rocks could be thrown with no hint of guilt. Old strategies were resumed. She lingered on the outskirts of the encampment, up trees or under bushes, where she was close enough to steal food but hard for others to find. If she could not escape, she would back herself up against a rock or two split tree roots, bare her teeth and prepare to fight. Normally some adult chased the children off before they could hurt her, so these conflicts never came to anything. Bernard found something gratifying in her defensive reaction at first, because he was sure that when he approached, she would remember him as her savior. That would make him special; the only one who could handle little Ainsel. She would be his beautiful little sister.

Things did not quite work out that way. When he first tried to approach her, she ran away, just as she did from everyone else. The same was true for the second, third and fourth times he tried. On his fifth he managed to catch her ankle and drag her back towards him. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. All he had was a vague sense that if he could trap her with him for a few moments, she would realize who he was and come to love him. Instead, she scratched his face.

This betrayal convinced him to leave her alone, and he sulked until the rest of the Metropiads came.

As they passed through the encampment, Bernard began to grasp how Metropiad society really functioned. There were the weavers, who spun wool into yarn or matted it into felt, dyed it and made it the soft, durable fabric that Metropiads were known for. The secret of the cloth was not in the weaving, but in the dog handlers. They did not herd anything; rather, the dogs themselves were the source of the wool. While some were lean, muscled creatures, used for hunting and patrolling the borderlands, the vast majority were luxuriously long-furred, kept in the heart of the city and groomed regularly, and the shed underfur was collected, cleaned and traded to the weavers. Then there were the glassblowers, who kept the secrets of glassmaking and exquisite pottery that the outside world found so valuable. Traders took these, along with any extra cloth, and got anything else the community needed. Each group also contributed to communal food stores. Weavers grew potatoes and soybeans. Glassblowers tended apple orchards and brewed cider. Dog handlers smoked game their dogs caught. Anything else was either gathered or procured by the traders.

The vast majority of Metropiads fell into one of those four groups. The sophisticated scholars who Bernard had heard of were only a small sliver; the priests. These too were divided. There were the physicians, like Avalon, the librarians, who maintained the stores of lost knowledge from before the plague, and the high priests, who made laws and heard complaints from the rest of the people. Bernard waited and waited, but no priests passed through the encampment looking for apprentices, and he did his best to look for a future home in the other four.

None were anything but a disappointment.

It was soon apparent that Metropiads were not the unified community that he had expected, but rather a conglomeration of allied states, or perhaps an ecosystem of symbiotic organisms. The four types of working class Metropiads were so distinct that Bernard could quickly distinguish them by their speech and mannerisms. The glassblowers were terse and meticulous. Their speech was direct and to the point, and they were quite comfortable with others of their own kind, less so with anyone else. The weavers could scarcely stop talking. They traveled in cliques, and spoke with a slow drawl that, despite their deliberation, was so full of inside jokes it was nearly incomprehensible. Dog handlers were nearly as sociable as spinners, but their speech was crisp, clipped and commanding. They were leaner and more athletic as well, while the weavers’ constant sitting gave them fairly soft bodies. The traders were the most diverse group, but there was a distinctive feel to them. Bernard could identify them with consistent accuracy within a few days. They had a thorniness, yet they were gregarious. They were the sort content to be solitary for long periods, so you hardly saw them wandering in groups of more than two or three, but they were good at handling people. It was this contradiction that marked them like a fingerprint. Bernard sensed immediately that he would not fit in with any of these people, even if he could get past the dissonance between his lofty expectations and the mundane reality.

Eventually, it occurred to him that priests must adopt new children like anyone else, but that they must come looking more rarely. After this thought occurred to him, it made more sense upon each reflection. Naturally, people as elegant and refined as Avalon would cast all the common workers in a dull light, and the society would become bloated, with all children begging to become priests and none willing to take the necessary work. They would bide their time, and only look for those who were truly motivated to join the priesthood. So Bernard waited, keeping his hopes to himself in case someone would think it was vain of him.

Finally, Petruchio came. Petruchio was a high priest. He was not tall, but had a way of carrying himself that made everyone misremember him as a giant, and it was only when he was standing next to someone six foot two that people realized he was average in size. A few hours later, they would forget again. He wore his head entirely shaved, and wore a thick, rounded, pure piece of amber glass around his neck.

Unfortunately, he seemed more interested in Ainsel.

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