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Governor: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Monday, November 16, 2020 19:07 EST



    The young woman hurried down an alley, a shawl over her blonde hair and a basket clutched in her hands. She passed a dumpster that reeked of rotting food and urine before she peeked around the corner into a street that was mostly empty in the early morning hours.

    Inverness wasn't a bad world, so far as the Republic's Fringe went, but it wasn't known for its safety or friendliness. Or its warmth. Scotia, the system's red dwarf primary, had just crossed the horizon. It would take up nearly a third of the sky once it had fully risen, but even with it dominating the heavens, its weak light barely managed to keep the air frigid.

    The young woman pulled her threadbare coat tighter and moved over a frost-covered sidewalk to a bakery window. The smell of fresh bread was a welcome improvement over the alley, and her mouth watered and her stomach rumbled as she waited, huddled next to a steam vent in the ground. A bit of warmth crept into her toes, and she wiggled them.

    The window slid open, and a man with flour coating his hands and lower arms bent over.

    "We don't open for another half hour, Eira," he said.

    "But the fresh ones taste the best, Mr. Franco." Warmer air wafted over her from the window, and she smiled as her teeth chattered.

    "Kills me to see you out here." He glanced back into the bakery. "Boss doesn't like you. You know that."

    "He's not here yet," she said.

    "No, he's . . . You want fresh, or day-olds? Hurry."

    Eira placed a hand on the windowsill and had to pry its frozen fingers open with her other hand. Silver coins rattled onto the metal.

    "Nine . . . twelve marks," Franco counted. "I can do four day-old or two fresh."

    "I thought that was enough for five," she said.

    "Governor raised the sales tax. Sorry. Four?"

    "Four. Thank you."

    The window shut, and Eira felt the last gust of warm air on her face. She turned away as a ground car rumbled past on the packed snow of the street. She bent over to stick her fingers into the steam grate and winced as the cold left her joints.

    The window opened again and a white paper bag landed next to her. She snatched it to her chest and felt a hint of warmth within. Franco must have slipped her a bun fresh from the oven. She went back through the stinking alleyway, debating whether she should eat the warm one or keep going.

    "But it'll be cold by the time I'm home." She put her back to the wall and took a bite from a golden-brown pastry. The taste of curried meat made her stomach rumble even harder, and she smiled as she watched steam rise from the half-moon she'd taken out.

    A flash of white struck her hands and exploded into slush. She gasped in shock as pain lanced through her left hand. The pastry lay on the ground, jumbled up with the remains of a snowball and a small rock.

    "Hey, Leaguie!" a boy shouted. "You steal that?"

    Another snowball burst against the wall next to her head, and Eira ducked down, clutching the white bag to her chest. Laughter rose from a bunch of teenagers as another snowball struck her thigh.

    Eira reached down and snatched the rock out of the remains of her meal.

    She whirled and flung it at a pack of boys too old for Inverness's schools and too young for military service. The rock struck one of them just above the knee, where his winter wear was thinnest.

    He screamed in pain and went down. While his friends tried to help him up, Eira ducked into a park and ran as fast as she could over the icy ground.

    "Little bastards."

    She stopped next to a hedge, panting, her breath coming out in puffs of steam. She shook out her left hand. It hurt, but at least the cold numbed the pain of the scratches the rock had left on it.

    She opened the rickety door of a crumbling building and went up the staircase two stairs at a time. She stepped over a drunk and went into her apartment. The place was a single room with a mattress in the corner, with a pile of blankets and a weak heater next to it.

    ""Eira, that you?" a man asked from the pile.

    "Of course it is, Sam," she said. "Got some breakfast."

    Sam sat up. He was a bit younger than she, with skin lesions on his neck and upper chest. A brand of cursive text had been seared onto his stomach.

    "What did you . . . have to do for this?" he asked as she passed him a bun so cold the filling had ice flakes in it.

    "I did laundry for some of the soldiers of the garrison," she said. "Shined boots. Straightened up their barracks. Got coin."

    "That one still after you?" Sam wiped sauce from his mouth. "You know. Tried to hurt you."

    "I think he's still in the hospital," Eira said. "The sergeant said no court-martial. So he comes back, and . . ."

    "You don't have to feed me so much," Sam said. "It's not like I'm moving around a lot."

    "Get healthy and then you can start working, too." She tore off a third of her bun and pressed it into Sam's hands. "Now shut up and finish eating. And then I need to look at that leg of yours again."

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