It was quiet in the boys room, the time of night when Mister Sand had brushed away the daily fear and pain of life in the orphanage and replaced it with the hopes and joy of youthful dreams. The only sounds were the deep breaths of the slumbering, peppered with a few light snores and the nose whistle of Shep, who always seemed to be stopped up.
Unfortunately the fresh welts on Justyn’s back prevented him from joining the others in blissful sleep. He lay on his stomach, covers down to his waist and his shirt pulled up to keep the rough cloth from inflaming the wounds further. Even the night air couldn’t seem to cool the painful, throbbing reminders of the lash. It had been the worst beating Justyn had ever experienced, and he had mercifully passed out before Cold Crone had finished.
The balm applied would help heal the wounds and reduce the scarring, but it certainly didn’t help much with the pain. What did help however was the kindness of many of the other children, who had stolen little bits of time to come up to him throughout the day and thank him for felling the foul dragon Stank. The blinded bully had been rushed from the orphanage and taken to the Medicus, and had not yet come back. If his vision didn’t return it was possible he might be relocated to the crippled children’s shelter and they’d not have to suffer his fists or odors again.
A few of the children had given Justyn gifts, little tokens of appreciation. For the most part, they weren’t much– a bit of twine, a wire ring, dried flowers, a dead beetle. But each expression of thanks whether verbal or material had given Justyn hope and joy that more than made up for a dreamless sleepless night.
Clutched in his hand however was one extraordinary gift. The metal was cold in his hand– a silver bit! In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a lot of money, but to the kids in the orphanage it was a small fortune. After he’d gotten over the shock of actually holding the coin in his hand, Justyn had tried to return it to Ivan, but the little boy shook his head, a huge smile on his face. Justyn insisted, but the boy just ran away from him. It was either drop the coin on the floor or put it in his pocket. Justyn had no idea where in the world Ivan might have gotten that treasure, and he was unsure where to hide it now that the treasure was his.
Justyn’s thoughts turned to his mother, and the last time he’d seen her. It was probably just a few years ago, but it seemed like another age when Cold Crone had taken him from his studies and brought him into the small room in the front that no one was allowed to go in. Sunlight streamed in from the only window in the building that was unshuttered, giving him a precious rare view of the street outside, and yet all he could see was his mother sitting there on bench, waiting for him. Her dress was wrinkled and stained, her hair unkempt and her face prematurely aged, lined and puffy, but she was his mother and the most beautiful thing in the world.
He rushed to her and nearly jumped into her lap, hugging with all his strength. She felt stiff in his embrace, her arms held out and unsure what to do, but then they slowly wrapped around him. She ran her hand through his hair.
“Oh, Justyn… my baby…”
“Have you come to take me home?” he said, the words muffled in her dress. He could smell the stale scent of sweat, beer, tobacco and dust. The smell of home. He felt her shake underneath him and realized she was crying.
“No my love, no… I can’t… I can’t…”
There was a sudden change in the air of the boys room, and Justyn’s memory fell away and his attention snapped back to the present. He felt more than heard movement in the hall outside the boys room. His cot was relatively close to the door; Cold Crone made the troublemakers sleep close to the door so she could keep an easy eye on them. He closed his eyes and slowed down his breathing, mindful that the woman often crept about in the dark hoping to catch children violating curfew. He could sense whoever it was enter the boys room, and could hear the soft footfalls approaching his cot.
Justyn fought the panic. Breathe… breathe…
The presence stood over him, and he heard a quiet intake of breath. The person knelt beside him, and a gentle hand touched his shoulder well above the wounds.
“Justyn?” A soft, feminine whisper. Not Cold Crone… he opened his eyes and could barely see her in the darkness.
Berrie. Her long dark hair cast her face in further shadow, but he knew her face well. All the older boys did. Despite being as shabbily clothed and dirty as the rest of the children under Cold Crone’s tender care, Berrie had a beauty that just shined through. A little older than Justyn, she was no more than a year or two from being cast out to fend for herself on the streets. She was tall and willowy, and her eyes were exotically tilted different from most.
He quietly turned to his side to face her, careful with his wounded back. “Does it still hurt?” she whispered, then gave a quiet hiss and shook her head. “Stupid, of course it still hurts.” She glanced around the room, and then looked back over her shoulder to the door to the hall. She was risking a beating of her own by being here, not only violating curfew but by being a girl in the boys room.
Berrie turned back to him, and her hair fell in a way that better revealed her face. Justyn couldn’t think of anything to say, feeling a bit mesmerized by Berrie’s closeness. “I just wanted to thank you for what you did to Stank. He… he…” Her voice caught in her throat and he could see her mouth twitch. She sighed. “He deserved it. He really did.”
Suddenly her face filled his vision and then her lips were upon his, warm and soft. There was no pain, no thoughts, no orphanage, no Cold Crone, no Stank, nothing but Berrie and he, connected by a kiss.
And then, she was gone. Miraculously, the pain from his back seemed to subside a bit, and he felt a great weariness begin to pull him into darkness. He thought of Berrie, the feel of her lips… and then Kittina, her breath upon his cheek…
* * *
“Well, don’t we make a pair?” laughed Kitt between bites of her thin oatmeal. Justyn sat on the stoop next to her, and groaned as his coarse shirt shifted against his welts. He nearly spilled his breakfast from its bowl.
“How are you feeling?” Justyn asked. Her eye was swollen shut, and her face around it was colored a nasty purple and black. He could imagine how painful it must be, but she did her best to give him a smile.
“It’s a good thing you stepped in when you did, or I’d have killed him,” she said.
“Oh really?” It was Justyn’s turn to laugh. “You should watch your temper, it gets you in trouble.”
“My temper?” Kitt scoffed. “You’re one to say! If I had a temper like yours, I’d be angry that tall, dark and pretty has been making eyes at you all morning.”
Justyn nearly choked on his oatmeal. He glanced up and saw Berrie across the yard. She sat talking with a couple of the other older girls, but she was looking right at him. She gave him a small smile and Justyn could feel the blush rising up his neck immediately.
“I guess I can’t blame her really. Stank was a shit to all of us, but her…” Kitt pursed her lips, anger creeping across her face. “He tried to make her do things.”
“What?” Justyn was confused and shocked. This felt like a sudden intrusion by the grown-up world, darker and crueler than their life as children. There always seemed to be more and more of those moments of late.
“She tried to tell Miss Goode about it, but Cold Crone beat her instead. Said she was asking for it, said she was tempting the boys with sin.”
Justyn couldn’t take his eyes off Berrie. He knew she’d put herself at risk to visit him last night, but knowing this… if Cold Crone had caught her she would have flayed the skin from the girl. Or worse!
The two sat in silence as they finished their oatmeal. A thought began to bloom in Justyn’s mind and he finally turned to his friend. “Why would you get angry that Berrie was making eyes at me?”
She shrugged. “Because you’re mine.”
Justyn blinked, and smiled. “And you’re mine?” he asked.
“Now you’re getting it.”
He glanced sidelong at her, but she just stared out into the yard. He could feel his heart beating hard within his chest, his brain clouded with a buzz of happiness.
A boy walking by tripped on a root and nearly tumbled face first into the ground. “Whoa, careful Ivan!” called Kitt.
Ivan smiled, embarrassed. “Thanks, Kitt. Hi Justyn!” The boy scurried off before Justyn could say anything.
Which reminded Justyn of something he’d meant to ask Kitt. He reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a folded cloth.
“Well, since I’m yours and you’re mine… what are we going to do about this?”
“Fuck…” Kitt whispered, staring down at the silver bit he carefully revealed to her eyes only. Justyn could almost hear the gears of her mind spinning fast.