"The servants were scared stiff of him, and the masters were clearly uncertain what to say to a man who came from such an eccentric House. Nothing was different, nothing had changed. And yet everything had changed since Carr met a young foreigner who showed him not the least bit of respect."
When a foul-mouthed, seditious foreigner turns up at your door, what are the benefits of letting him in? So wonders Carr, a young man living in a bayside nation that is troubled by internal battles. In his world, servants fight against masters, tonging watermen fight against dredging watermen, and landsteads eye one another's oyster grounds with greed. It seems to Carr that the only way in which to keep such warfare from entering his own home is to keep very, very quiet about certain aspects of himself which his family would not be able to accept.
But "trouble" is a word that appears to delight the new visitor. He is ready to stir up danger . . . though he may not be as prepared as he thinks to confront what lies within Carr.
A finalist in the Gay Fantasy category of the Rainbow Awards 2013, this novel about an unconventional pairing features a special appearance by a character from the Slave Breakers series by Sabrina Deane. The novel can be read on its own or as the first story in the "Master and Servant" volume of Waterman, a speculative fiction series inspired by the Chesapeake Bay oyster wars, boarding school rivalries in the 1910s, and 1960s visions of things to come.
"Any valuables to declare?"
Carr spoke automatically, reaching for the foreigner's passage-of-port, which gleamed gold with the seal of the Queendom of Yclau. Carr's mind was not on his work today; it was on the fact that he'd spent half the night dreaming of his father's valet, and the other half of the night trying to forget the dream.
"Yeah," said the foreigner, "but unless you're going to do a body search on me, you're not likely to get a chance to yank it."
Carr's gaze jerked up from the passage-of-port, which was signed, not by a minor government clerk in Yclau, but by an official from the Queen's palace. The foreigner was smirking at him.
Carr looked down at the passage-of-port again to give himself time to think. First name, last name – no title initial, of course, but the foreigner's class was clear enough. Not just from the palace official's signature, and not just from the fact that the foreigner was in a second-class cabin rather than steerage. His class was clear from his behavior. Yclau's commoners, on the rare occasions when they visited the Dozen Landsteads, were either deferential or belligerent toward the border guards. They didn't smirk.
Carr flipped through the rest of the passage-of-port, but aside from an illegible departure stamp, it was blank, showing no indication that the foreigner had left his queendom before. Carr glanced up at the man again. Young, perhaps a sun-cycle or two older than Carr. Dressed in a nondescript travelling cloak that hid his clothes. As light-skinned as Carr himself, but with dark hair and hazel eyes, like a Vovimian. Perhaps the young man was from northwestern Yclau, near the border to the Kingdom of Vovim? Carr couldn't quite place his accent.
"Do you have any items you wish to declare, comrade?" As always, the final word emerged awkwardly, even though it generally had no effect on foreigners passing over the border. Some foreigners would assume that his mode of address was a quaint custom in the Dozen Landsteads. The ones who knew better tended to be amused rather than angry.
Amusement seemed to be the young man's response; he was smirking again. "'Comrade'? Are you a member of the Commoners' Guild, then? I didn't know that the labor unions had made such inroads into the Dozen Landsteads."
"I'll need to see a second piece of identification, sir." He kept his voice empty of emotion as he held out his hand. For all he knew, this youth with the lordly manners and the signature of a palace official on his passage-of-port was a titled heir. Yclau liked to claim that it was the perfect egalitarian state, where all class divisions had been abolished. Judging from the behavior of the elite men whom Carr had met at the border since he reached journeyman age, Yclau still had a long way to go before reaching its ideal.
The young man, laughing, tossed Carr his identification. Carr caught the plastic card neatly in one hand and examined it carefully. First name, last name, and one of those eerie holopics that the Yclau government used. The young man peered out of his holopic, solemn-faced.
Everything looked in order. Carr was about to say so; it was hardly worth pressing an aristocrat as to whether he had any valuables to declare, since everything this young man owned was likely to be of value. At that moment, though, the foreigner asked abruptly, "What is your name?"
He kept his gaze focussed on the identification. "M Carruthers, sir."
"What's the 'M' stand for?"
It was a question he had received from innocent visitors before, but something about the tone of this young man's voice was disingenuous. Carr flicked up his gaze and said steadily, "It's my first name."
The foreigner laughed again and grabbed Carr's hand, the one that was holding the identification. Before Carr had time to pull back, the foreigner had jerked up Carr's sleeve to reveal the M tattooed on the back of his wrist.
Carr jerked back, his heart pounding, as though the young man had unexpectedly pulled open the flap of his trousers. The foreigner, blast him, was laughing again.
"Your first name?" the man said in a mocking tone.
"I'd like to see your bag, sir."
The man's laughter stopped abruptly. His face turned suddenly as solemn as his holopic. For a moment, he was motionless; then he reached down to the floor.
Carr caught a glimpse of his bare right arm as he heaved the travelling bag onto the bed; his biceps bulged as he did so. Any delusions Carr might have harbored that he was dealing with an Abolitionist who had come home under disguise to help other runaways was destroyed by that brief glimpse. No tattoo. Even if the tattoo had been removed – Yclau had surgeons who would do that, for a high fee – the mark of it would still be faintly present, for anyone who had eye enough to look for it.
Not a former citizen of the Dozen Landsteads, then, and anyway, his accent was wrong for that. Watching the foreigner open the bag, Carr wished that he hadn't allowed himself to be goaded by the laughter into inspecting the bag. By the rules of his job, he was supposed to inspect the bags and trunks of anyone who passed over the border. In reality – as his supervisor had made clear on his first day of work – the border guards of the Dozen Landsteads only inspected the bags and trunks of anyone who bore an S or was the foreign equivalent of an S. The border guards – the vast majority of whom wore the letter S on their wrists – couldn't afford to antagonize high-class foreigners. And Carr couldn't afford to antagonize his parents by getting himself into a row that they would have to pull strings to extract him from.
The foreigner, still expressionless, stood back to allow Carr to inspect his bag. It was a surprisingly old-fashioned bag: it opened at the top, had a brass lock, and was made of leather. Carr was used to seeing gleaming metal cases from Yclau citizens, with buttons and lights and alarms that went off when he touched the wrong spot. One trunk he had inspected had begun chattering out what looked like ticker-tape. The 'trunk' had turned out to be a calculating machine that Carr had accidentally turned on. That particular foreigner – an Yclau professor visiting the Second Landstead University – had been eager to explain the workings of his marvellous luggage. By the time Carr managed to extract himself from the conversation in order to inspect the border-crosser in the next cabin – leaving it to his supervisor to break the news that the calculating machine was contraband in the Dozen Landsteads – Carr had learned more than he had ever expected to know about laser colors, logic circuits, vacuum tubes, ferrite cores, semiconductor diodes, and ongoing efforts to make computers think in a ternary fashion, just as humans did.
The latest visitor looked far less pleased to have his travelling bag inspected; he was frowning now as Carr pawed through his clothing. Carr avoided looking at the man directly as he squinted at the interior of the bag. The ocean steamer's cabin was dim; the visitor had turned off the gas lamps, though the porthole was open, allowing in the afternoon light, the fish-scent of the harbor, and the call of gulls wheeling southeast, toward where the Bay opened its mouth to the ocean. Most of the gulls would go no further than the narrow shipping lane between the Dozen Landsteads' southeastern-most port, here in the Second Landstead, and Yclau's northeastern port. The First Landstead's southeastern border lay between the two, but if any Bay ports existed there, Carr had never heard of them. For all he knew, the residents there all travelled by jet-car.
Digging down toward the bottom of the bag, Carr wondered whether the visitor came from the First Landstead. Many of the residents there, he knew, held dual citizenships with the First Landstead and Yclau, and they would need a passage-of-port to enter the upper landsteads, due to their peculiar legal position. First Landsteaders usually entered the upper landsteads by way of the Celadon-Brun Memorial Bridge, which linked the First Landstead with the Second Landstead. But perhaps this man had been travelling overseas and had elected to come home by a less orthodox method.
Tangling with a First Landsteader could shove Carr into even more trouble than tangling with an Yclau aristocrat. Carr hastily withdrew his hands, which had found nothing in the bag other than a few items of clothing, some articles of toiletry, and three books about the Dozen Landsteads, one with a garish picture of Prison City on its cover. He turned to apologize to the visitor.
The young man was standing against the wall, his hair rustling under the light wind through the porthole, his eyes darker than before as he glared at Carr. He had pulled his cloak back far enough to allow himself to fold his arms. His hands were in fists; his biceps bulged.
Carr's gaze lingered on those bulging biceps. Then he turned, closed the bag, and picked it up.
He heard the man's breath whistle in; then the visitor was silent.
Yes, he had been right. The bag – heavy enough to strain the visitor's arm when he lifted the bag onto the bed – must be holding more than Carr had seen so far. Moving with the sureness of experience now, Carr pushed the bag onto its side and began inspecting the bag's bottom.
The hidden latch was not hard to find. He flipped it and pulled open the secret compartment, keeping half an eye on the visitor and both his ears on the sound of his supervisor outside, who was politely greeting foreigners and returning Landsteaders as they made their way down the gangplank. If the young man in this room was going to try to make a break over the border, now would be the time.
But the visitor showed no sign of either fleeing or turning violent. He simply continued to glare as Carr carefully pulled out the contents of the secret compartment: A carnival half-mask. A length of rope. A stack of leaflets. A gun.
Carr inspected the gun first. It was not a model that he recognized, but its change lever was easy enough to locate; it was in the safe position. He opened the pistol. A dozen chambers, fully loaded.
The leaflets were printed by letterpress rather than through the electrostatic printing that Carr was accustomed to seeing in Yclau publications. The nature of the leaflets was even easier to discern than that of the gun: each of them bore a title glaring out from the front. The leaflets said: "Seeking freedom? We can help."
Keeping the gun carefully cradled in his hand, Carr turned to look at the visitor. The young man's expression of hostility had disappeared. He raised his eyebrows at Carr. "Well?" he said in a challenging voice. "Are you going to use that rope on me? Or do you have handcuffs hidden inside that uniform?"
Carr turned the gun in his hand and carefully offered its handle to the visitor. As the young man's expression changed to puzzlement, Carr said, "Actually, sir, I was going to invite you to supper."
Then, as the visitor's puzzlement deepened to bewilderment, Carr smiled slightly. "I think my parents would like to meet you."