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The Tale Of Jon Handshaker, Chapter One
The Tale Of Jon Handshaker
Jon Lamb was having little luck. He had fished the shallow, cold, mountain creeks of the Reservation Lands for trout and grayling, but he was new to this city and to the wide, slow rivers that encompassed it.
The Festival of the Dog Star, the first sighting of the summer star, was one of four given over for public purification. People, public spirited, or simply ever mindful of their neighbors' eyes, were diligently cleaning their homes, shops, and streets. They burned richly scented pine boughs in hopes of warding off the summer fevers brought on by insects and the heavy, humid air. Jon Lamb was playing hooky.
The honeycart men were working overtime. Instead of their usual leisurely dozen or two cartloads each, morning through afternoon, on Purification Days they worked from dawn till past dusk, pulling heavy cartloads of the unclean or unwanted. From the Sunset Gate the road and the Great River flowed in tandem.
The hundred-odd West Gate honeycart men went back and forth the statutory one-quarter mile. They ran the carts down the low bank at that point, right out into the ankle-deep shallows, where the bottom was smooth rock. They dumped the cities unmentionables into the water and then quickly stirred the water with their staves. Then they hauled the carts, with their oversized barrels, back up the bank and onto the main road.
Jon fished just upstream from the dumping (he wasn’t so uneducated as to fish downstream, though many didn't care). He floated his baited hook back and forth on a short line from a fourteen foot pole, just as he had learned from Old Uncle back home.
With only the honeycarts to break the monotony of fishless fishing, Jon grew more and more distracted as the morning wore on. Playing hooky from his duties wasn’t turning out as much fun as he had thought it might be. Finally, he simply propped his pole between some rocks, and, pulling out a book from his bag, began to read. He was vaguely aware of the carts going by, and he could see the dumping from where he sat.
One of the honeycart men caught his eye, an over-muscled giant with a great full mane of hair, who seemed to be watching him each time he made the trip to or from the city. Not shy, Jon waved at him and shouted hello as the giant returned toward the city with his empty honeycart. The giant didn’t reply except to nod once deeply, almost a bow. He strode on, his ragged gray uniform gaping at the seams, where his almost ridiculous musculature flexed and bulged.
Jon continued reading, a textbook on ancient landfall history, required for the first level. I may be playing hooky, he thought, but at least I keep up with the reading. More than most of those bloodless Lambs. He so justified abandoning them all to scrubbing the old building inside and out, rooftop and attic to basement storerooms. I just don’t like those filthy coal-rooms in the basement, and I cleaned them all just last week anyway. Why a coal-room needs cleaning anyway... Without effort, he avoided thinking about why he had had to clean them.
The book was getting interesting for a change, a detailed account of the old rebellion that had ended with the formation of the Reservation Lands. Quite different from the story he had heard all his life growing up there. A shouted "Halloo" broke through his reading, and he looked up to see the giant standing above him at the verge of the road. The other honeycart men continued on by, a dozen in sight at any time.
"Boy! You won't get any damn fish there," the man shouted as he scrambled down the steep bank. He skidded to a stop with one foot in the river, and stretched up to get the kinks out of his back, muscles bulging and joints cracking. "Too damn hot for the fishies today. Try over under that damn tree," he said in a lower, gravely voice, pulling his foot from the water and pointing at an undercut oak, fallen in the spring floods. "They like the shade on a damn hot day." Then he grinned a big-toothed grin, "Me too." After a brief pause, rolling his eyes up as if deep in thought, he added a quiet, "Damn if I don’t."
Jon was speechless for a moment, a rare enough condition for him. He had never even spoken to any casteman before, and certainly never to one from the lowest caste of all, the Sewage Haulers Caste. The Honeycart Men, as they liked to call themselves. And with all of those damns. It was just too much. He couldn’t help himself, and broke into astounded laughter. That seemed to set off the easy-natured giant as well, and his ever-present grin widened into an open-mouthed smile, and then laughter. The two stood on the riverbank bellowing laughs at each other.
One of the passing honeycart men shouted down in barely intelligible caste cant, "Yas fine par a lafin idiotsh, if ya ashk me!" As they ran down to panting chuckles, the giant repeated, "If you want to catch any damn fishes, you gotta get out of that damn sun." He pointed meaningfully up at the sun overhead, as if Jon wouldn’t know which sun he had meant.
Jon took a deep breath. The man was grinning again, and Jon supposed he was simple. Many of the castemen were said to be. That was why they were in protected castes. Funny that he wasn’t speaking cant too. "Are you a fisherman too?" was the first thing that came into his head.
Jon briefly considered asking the man's name, but here in the city it was generally thought rude to ask directly. People made up nicknames for each other as a matter of course, as an art, and most often as a form of humor, subtle sometimes, but usually otherwise. The nickname you carried changed from day to day and even hour by hour, depending on the chance of the day.
An especially apt name could spread in moments, so that people you didn’t even know would greet you, just for the chance to savor the name. Only occasionally would a person carry the same name as long as a year. Jon sometimes wondered how people ever knew whom anyone else was talking about, gossip being the city's most popular vice. No one but he seemed to have much trouble keeping all the nicknames straight.
The giant nodded and said, "When I’m not pulling this damned cart there is nothing I like better. Gives a man time to think. Besides, The Wife likes her damn fish. So do I. Damned if I don’t." Then he turned abruptly and bounded up the bank shouting, "Bye Laugher."
Laugher seemed to Jon a pretty lame nickname even for just one day, but he was probably stuck with it, at least until he got back to the city. So in reply he shouted the equally lame, because so obvious and trite, "Bye, Giant."
The nearest honeycart men laughed too and from then on through the long afternoon Jon Laugher heard one or another of them shout "Hello, Laugher" or "Good-bye, Laugher" or "Catch any fish yet, Laugher?" Lame and low humor, but better than the usual Diamond, or Fatty, or Butter. Worst in its implications was Lamb, the most common of all the nicknames he put up with in the city. And, from under the oak tree, he did indeed catch fish, big, small, carp, bass, drum and more.
Jon Laugher was in no hurry to get home. Even his best friends would no doubt be unhappy to see him, unless it was to see him punished. He had never, even as a small boy allowed the mere fear of punishment to stop him from doing whatever he wanted. But putting off the pain until the last moment had always seemed a good compromise.
So hot afternoon wore into evening and still he caught fish, far more than he could carry home in his small creel. In the excitement of the catching, he thought each time, just one more.
Finally in the deepening dusk, with only a moon up for thin blue light, the last of the honeycarts came rumbling by. Jon saw the Giant emptying a final load of sewage as a few of his caste fellows looked on. Carrying a long string of fish, Jon walked up to them. He heard a bit of their rough conversation before they noticed him.
"Notin much tish 'ear. Notin lak lash 'ear tish tam. Ah got golds an silvers both!"
Whatever they were talking about, in their almost incomprehensible cant, Jon thought that sounded like a boast.
The Giant was just shaking the water from his oversized bare calves, grinning and nodding his head in apparent agreement, or perhaps just slow-witted good nature, when Jon broke into the circle of castemen. "Giant, you said your wife likes fish." And he held up the makeshift stringer in his left hand, with a dozen black bass and yellow river perch on it. Some of the best eating fish.
Giant stood silent, smileless for a change, and looked from the fish to Jon, and back again. All his teeth showed in a sudden, toothy grin. Jon was reminded of a lion showing his fangs, what with his large, round head, and full windblown hair sticking out in all directions.
The Giant extended his hand to accept the fish, and, on a sudden, capricious impulse, Jon Laugher put out his own and grabbed the sewage hauler's rough paw in a firm handshake. Thoroughly shocked by his own impulsive action, he held on strongly for three big shakes, as if to an equal.
There was time for long, deep drawn breaths in silence, then all of the honeycart men began to leave as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, making ripe remarks and shouting rough good-byes. Jon Laugher and the giant stood looking at each other for a moment longer. Giant said diffidently, "Well, my damned name is Rafe, if you wanted to know."
Still in shock at his own action, Jon's mind went off on a tangent. A boy of the King's Blood never touched a caste-man. He took a deep breath to reorient his thoughts and replied, "I am Jon." Again, spoken directly, as if to an equal. The cat was out of the bag. Even at that age, only thirteen, Jon was seldom indecisive. "Good-bye, Rafe Giant. I guess I'm in enough trouble as it is, no need to get caught outside the gates all night, and past curfew already."
Rafe Giant nodded, the silly grin returned, and he reached out to take the fish. He turned and strode quickly away to his cart, without another word.
In Chapter Two Jon will learn the consequences of his impulsive act, and the punishment. He turns that punishment to his own benefit, accidentally setting himself on a strange course. Chapters One through Three are essentially a prologue, with the violence, blood, death and adventure starting in Chapter Four.