A/N: this originally appeared in The Slash Pile's summer anthology, Wanderlust, which can be found here: u/102036112/WANDERLUST_SlashTravelAnthology_2012_
You should go read the other stories. Also, the current anthology, Psychopomp, is out:
what you should know is that this and A Day of Porn, which isn't pornography and can be found at my profile, are both set in the fictional city of Boem, which is totally not in Eastern Europe, and has completely different history, geography, and culture. Only the climate, the architecture, and the cuisine are at all syperficially reminiscent in the slightest, and that is only at first glance.
The Greenest Boy in Town
Topol came to Boem three weeks before Primavera with two changes of clothes and a little scrap of paper with an address on it, not even a phone number. He only planned to pass through there long enough to build up what he needed to get to Dalmi, down on the southern peninsula, where everybody said the sun shone every day. He'd been told there was work there for a guy who was almost big and had never bothered to go through the convolutions required to get a Consortium work permit.
He was frustratingly close to Boem when night began to fall and with it Topol's energy, strength, and determination. He spent the night in a travelers' camp with a Sapta family who tried to convince him to go the other direction with them, over the mountains to Almania. But being Sapta, they didn't give any straightforward reasons why he should do this. One minute it sounded like they thought he would be a fortunate son-in-law for some friends of theirs - odd, because the Sapta are usually so steadfastly endogamous - and another minute it sounded like they seriously expected him to believe that the notoriously cloudy highlands of near Almania would offer him the light and warmth he was craving, and then there was a nebulous offer of employment that was so lacking in detail that it was transparently untrue.
Later, Topol was to understand why the Sapta family wished to carry him away from Boem, but he would not have chosen differently, even so.
If the Sapta family had been driving their ancient but sparkling caravan into Boem instead of away from it, and Topol had ridden with them, it would have taken twenty minutes to get to the center of town from the travelers' camp. On foot, it took several hours (there was nobody stopping on the highway this morning, no matter how earnestly and harmlessly Topol stuck out his thumb). True to the developing season, the high fog burned off late in the morning, and Topol, grateful for some sun at last, stripped off his shirt for an hour or two, unashamedly drinking in the light before he got to town and had to look like a civilized person again.
Topol's task when he got to town was to find the place whose address he carried in his watch pocket. It would have been helpful to have a phone number but Topol's friend's friend had not included one. Topol had been warned: if a resident of Boem is smiling as you take directions from him, go the other way. But he still needed to ask. The streets and numbers in Boem made sense only in the abstract. It did not help that the street names incised into the cornerstones of the looming stone buildings did not match the names on the maps.
Supposedly the language in Topol's hometown was the same as it was in Boem: but he was forced to admit that he did not understand the directions he was given. And then the smile would come out. He'd have gone the other way, if he could only figure out which way it led.
So it was nearly dark before he saw any sign of Brezoskaya Square. He understood that Horchzhe Street was one of seven that led away from the square. Only seven streets: surely he could find the one he wanted. But an hour later, and at least fourteen forays out from the square, he was lost: and tired, and hungry, and he was stuck in a foreign city where he didn't understand the local dialect well enough to get around, and with just enough Consortium Dollars in his pocket to buy a breakfast and fifteen minutes on a café internet terminal. Though the weather was not harsh, Topol felt that all the warmth of the morning's sun had drained from his bones as soon as the sun dropped below the roofline of the buildings around the square. He looked back at the dark square, wondering if it would be safe to sleep on one of the benches.'
"Are you lost?" The voice behind him was amazingly comprehensible. Topol turned to see a jeans-and-hoodie clad young man looking him over. Topol considered denying it, in case the (not very formidable looking) man had unkind motivations. But there was no point. Unless he found the address he had been given, he was defenseless anyway. So he nodded.
The man stepped closer, and in the more intimate light of the streetlamp he looked disturbingly familiar. The tied-back dark hair and blushless cheeks were pretty common. Maybe something in the geometry of his face? Like the shape of his eyes and quite attractive mouth? "Where are you trying to get to?" he asked Topol. "Did you have a specific destination in mind, I mean?" The little smile was almost sympathetic, if Topol could believe that of a man from Boem.
"Yeah, actually, I'm looking for this," Topol said carefully, showing his scrap of paper. Even though he could understand every word this fellow said, there was no guarantee he'd understand Topol. Most of the people he'd met this day had at least pretended not to.
The young man did a double-take. "Do I know you?" he asked.
What a strange question. "I don't think so. I've never been to Boem before. Unless you've been to Walg?"
A flicker of an expression passed over the man's face. "Walg? No, but I have friends there. That must be how you got my address?"
Topol gave an embarrassed shrug. "I guess. I met this guy who said I should look up this address when I got here. But I couldn't find it."
The other shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Probably it was Yodela, right? He lives in Walg. Or did the last I knew."
Yes, it was Yodela. He'd met the fellow that one time, and in the course of the evening Yodela had heard all about Topol's restlessness and longing for sun, and his idea that he could work his way south somehow. Yodela, smirking, said knew right away that Topol was a proper sun worshiper, and after an impressive bout of frottage and fellatio, he'd talked Topol into a route through Boem, and gave him the address off Brezoskaya Square.
The owner of the address smiled again, stuck out his hand in an old-fashioned gesture, and said, "The name is Gustis. And yours?"
"Topol Strom," Topol said, waiting for the inevitable comment on his name. Given that his surname meant "tree," there was no call to force a given name on him that meant a species of tree. In his early teens Topol had experimented with getting people to call him almost anything else, but nobody would indulge him: neither Tomas, nor Petr, or any other normal name would stick.
"Great," Gustis said. "Come along, I bet you haven't eaten in days if you're a friend of Yodela."
Topol wondered what Yodela (not a friend anyway, surely?) had to do with it, but he wasn't arguing. He had eaten the night before with the Sapta family but it had been a couple of days before that, and if he didn't eat tonight, he might suffer the next day.
The reason Topol had not been able to find Horchzhe Street was that it didn't actually join up to the streets that went round the square. It was a narrow, narrow street, more an alley than a street, and darker than anything around. The thought briefly occurred to Topol that Gustis could have any kind of motivation at all, and in fact the mention of Yodela's name was the only bona fides that Topol had of the man. But he didn't go so far as to fear the fellow or even worry much.
"Here we are," Gustis said after not much walking. Topol followed him into a poorly-lit staircase, and after a silent, laborious climb up eight dark half-flights, through another locked door. It was dark as a pit in the vestibule, and as the door closed Topol recognized it as the kind of door that only opened with a key, from the inside or the outside. But Gustis threw a switch as soon as he unlocked his actual apartment door, and drew Topol in to a really bright, though rather chilly, room. The ceiling was almost entirely taken up by a multi-paned glass and metal skylight, with rather complicated latches and some other mechanisms attached to it. He wondered just how sunny that livingroom could get, when the weather was right. Right now, the sky beyond the ceiling was black, without even a star showing.
Although the building was old and smelled a bit crumbling, the flat had been painted and furnished rather recently with apparently random leftovers at the big cheap department store. "That couch opens out," Gustis said. "Kitchen's in here. You like curry?"
"Sure," Topol said. Truthfully, he'd only had it once or twice, but he didn't recall not liking it either. And food was food.
"You just have that backpack? No luggage in a train station locker?" Gustis asked as he pulled a bowl out of the countertop refrigerator.
"No, just this." He watched Gustis heat up the food and plate it.
"So, what brings you to Boem? Walg too hot for you? Boem's pretty hot right now too."
"What? No, it's still pretty cold in Walg. It doesn't really warm up for a month or so after Primavera, up there. It's the fog. It just blocks out all the sun and the ground stays half-frozen forever."
Gustis stared at him. He laughed, and then stopped. "Wait, you really thought I was talking about the weather?"
"What were you talking about?"
"Just . . . it's hard times, you know? Assholes in the street. Yodela said he was feeling the pressure in Walg too."
"I don't know what you mean. This is good food."
"You don't have to act dumb. I'm one too."
Topol frowned. "I thought it wasn't a big thing in Boem. Nobody cares anymore if you're gay in Walg, and Walg's a backwater compared to Boem."
Now it was Gustis's turn to frown. "It's the other thing that's dangerous," he said.
"Later," Gustis said. "I can see why you wouldn't want to talk about it right away."
As Topol stared at him, Gustis changed the subject. "So what are you planning to do here in Boem? That you can't do in Walg."
"Yodela said that I could pick up some outside work leading up to Primavera. I'm really heading to Dalmi. For the sun. I'm tired of living in fog all the time."
Gustis narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, you could probably do that. If you're careful. I know somebody who might hire you if you keep your shirt on. You know any carpentry? You could be helping build the Primavera markets, maybe."
"Yeah, I've done some stuff. Mostly laborer stuff, but my uncle's neighbor is a cabinetmaker and I helped him sometimes."
"You aren't going to have to do much cabinet making. It's pretty simple slapping things together kind of work, and anyway you'll mostly be carrying things. If you get the work."
"I hope I do. It's a long ways to Dalmi."
"You think that Dalmi's the only place with sun?" Now Gustis sounded annoyed.
"No. I just thought - it might be a nice place to go."
"Because you don't pay attention."
"You don't know me," Topol snapped. "Sorry. I don't mean to be rude. But -"
"No, you're right, I shouldn't make assumptions. How are you at getting up around four? Before daylight?"
"My phone has an alarm." Gustis must think he was a wimp, if he thought he couldn't do anything in the dark.
He could do whatever he had to.
Topol didn't offer to do the dishes: he just did them, and Gustis let him. When Topol wandered out to the livingroom to find him, Gustis was perched on the one armchair, curled around a battered-looking, quietly murmuring laptop. The couch was folded down to reveal a medium-wide mattress, but it wasn't made yet.
"Bathroom's over there," Gustis said without looking up, indicating with a tilt of his head one of the two other doors besides the front and the kitchen.
As he washed up, Topol craned his head around so he could see his birthmarks in the mirror as he did so. No miracle had taken them away. A little sun, and the green stuff just bloomed. But he couldn't just refuse to get any sun just because it made him look weird. He hadn't gotten so much as a weird comment since he had started keeping his shirt on in company back in middle school.
When he got back into the livingroom Gustis was pulling bedding out of the one door in the room that Topol had not been through. It wasn't a door to a bedroom, as he had thought, but a door to a closet. Which meant that the couch bed was the only place to sleep in the apartment.
"We're sharing?" Topol asked.
Gustis tossed a tangle of sheets and blankets at Topol. He laughed as Topol failed to catch them. "Yeah, that's how it goes. Don't worry, I'm not Yodela. Your virtue is safe with me."
Topol dug through the pile at his feet and pulled out a fitted sheet, somewhat worn but apparently clean, with a pattern of twining vines on it. He started to put it on. "I'm not virtuous," he said. Just in case it mattered.
"I am," Gustis said. Topol looked up at him. Gustis had a serious face as he tugged the other side of the sheet. When Topol didn't say anything more, Gustis laughed sharply. "Just kidding. But you really don't have to blow me to stay here. After you get paid you can buy some groceries."
"Okay," Topol said.
"Okay, sleep," Gustis said, disappearing into the bathroom. "We'll go out and get you some work in the morning."
The apartment was even chillier in the morning: he supposed that vast expanse of skylight at fault. As Topol was on his way to the bathroom to dress, Gustis tossed him a sleeveless undershirt. "You can borrow this," Gustis said.
Topol stared at it. Although it was high on the nape, it was deeply cut around the front neckline and armholes: really, in front it would barely cover anything but the area between the trousers and just above the nipples. And the fabric, though you couldn't see through it, was really thin. A person could get a bad sunburn in it. If he was the kind of person who got sunburns.
"It'll get pretty bright for a while, you'll be glad you have it to strip down to," Gustis said, with peculiar emphasis.
"Okay," Topol said. He was all for more sun and less exposure, really.
It was still cold when Topol was fully dressed for work, including the extra layer Gustis had lent him, but Gustis pressed him with hot coffee and hotter porridge, and by the time they hit the cold morning streets Topol felt warm enough inside to handle anything. As they trekked down the stairs Gustis handed him a plastic grocery bag. "What's this?" Topol asked.
"Lunch. No, take it, it's only going to be sunny for a few hours and I bet you're pretty pale anyway. Like I said, you can buy groceries when you get paid."
Gustis sounded like Topol's mother, who always said that grey days were hungry days, and then refused to explain what she meant.
Gustis took him to the interior yard of a stinking old tenement building at what used to be the edge of town. It was a busy place for not even five o'clock in the morning. There were piles of lumber everywhere and tools - two table saws, and more: and a number of men - and apparently two women - already moving the wood around and sawing and hammering away at it.
In the center of this activity was a middle-aged man wearing a trucker's cap and carrying a brace of clipboards. He looked rather like a Sapta to Topol, but of course he didn't care about that himself. Gustis walked straight over to him, and Topol exerted himself to keep up, while also taking care to avoid two men passing through with a tall cart with plywood strapped to it. He caught up to Gustis in time to hear him say that Topol was his cousin from Almania and he wanted to save up money for a bout of tourism before he entered into the University. Moments later, Topol had a job, no questions asked but "Can he hold a board up?" and "Can he follow directions?" which Gustis answered though he hadn't seen any more of Topol than an unrevealing dinner conversation and an uncommunicative walk through the streets. The boss, whose name was Feran, gave Topol some easy instructions and Gustis left.
The sun did come out and some of the men took off their jackets and sweaters. A couple of them stripped down to undershirts. One of them even had a shirt like the one that Gustis had lent to Topol. Topol took this as permission and encouragement to do as Gustis had predicted, and stripped down to Gustis's undershirt. With the sun shining right on him, Topol felt like he could do anything, anything at all. And though the slight scent - of Gustis? - coming off the shirt demanded his acknowledgment, it was pleasant enough, and not really distracting once he had identified its source.
By the time the boss called a halt for lunch Topol was feeling pretty good. He didn't even mind that he didn't have any money, because of the lunch Gustis had packed for him. He sat down on a box in the middle of the courtyard away from any shadows and settled in to eating. The boss came by. "You're staying here to eat?" he asked.
"Yeah," Topol said. "I brought lunch."
"Just as well," Feran said. "I don't give a shit but there's bastards in the neighborhood who'd give any of you guys a piece of hassle. I say fuck 'em but it's not worth struggling over."
"That's good," Feran said. "Just take it easy. Anyway, we'll start up again in an hour: better be here then if you want to get paid."
It was actually a bit longer than an hour before the others came back. When they did, everybody just started working again where they left off. At the end of the day Feran counted out a stack of Consortium dollars to everyone, which was a relief because they could have been Marezhki crowns - they used both here - and Topol would have lost money when he went to change to C dollars when he was ready to move on to Dalmi.
Topol wrapped up in all his layers of clothes again and set out back to Gustis's flat. He wondered what he would do if Gustis was not home yet, and what did Gustis do all day anyway? But Gustis buzzed him in. His clothes looked like he had thrown them on in a hurry. The pants were buttoned wrong and the shirt was scrunched up, But there was nobody else there. Topol wouldn't have minded if Gustis hadn't bothered.
Topol held up his bag, saying, "I got paid so I bought food."
Gustis nodded and stepped back so Topol could step in.
The living room was flooded with sunlight though it was late in the afternoon. Topol looked up. The panes of the skylight were partly open, some of them tilted at strange angles.
"Neat, isn't it?" Gustis said. "There's prisms and stuff up there to maximize the sunlight. The flat came like this. Apparently some Zelnik owned the house a hundred years ago. Every top floor flat in the building has these. But there's not that many people who can take real advantage of them like us."
"So, what? You hang around the flat naked all day?"
"Yeah, actually, when I can. Today I did."
Topol couldn't help imagining Gustis just like that, lying across the folded-in couch, his belly under the sun, his long hair spread out over the cushions. He struggled not to imagine himself in the same picture.
"You like that idea," Gustis said, laughing. Topol blushed and looked away.
"So let's see about food. You very hungry? I almost could skip out on supper but I like to eat a little even on a really bright day, don't you?"
"I guess," Topol said.
Gustis continued to not make sense all through their very light supper. It seemed like everything he said was a test, that he was trying to get Topol to say something in particular, but Topol was failing every time. Topol's failure to comprehend and parry the conversational leads he was being handed did seem to frustrate Gustis. Finally Topol just stood up and wordlessly washed the dishes like he had done the night before, as though the task could protect him from Gustis's annoyance, or even gain him Gustis's favor.
Every day Topol came home in the afternoon with a wad of money to a sun-flooded flat and an underdressed Gustis. Gustis resisted Topol's first offer of actual money, but when Topol showed him the stacks of C-dollars he was getting every day, he accepted it.
They began cooking together and Topol learned how to cook something other than cabbage salad and cheese dumplings.
The work was every day, no weekends off, though on the weekend days there were fewer workers in the yard. Topol heard Feran complaining about "all these so-called family men" and how the weekend was just an excuse to laze around and he was damned if he would pay anybody holiday pay if they took weekends too.
Topol thought that Feran's complaints had nothing to do with him until Feran announced that the day after the next one was the Feast of Koursesich the Clean. Several of the men said, "Old man, your senility is showing -" though Feran had shown no signs of either impending senility or even of elevated age.
Topol stared at this exchange, which was getting raucous, not to say raunchy. He was so absorbed in his own curiosity that he didn't notice a big, middle-aged crew captain named Tsoris crossing the yard towards him until the man clapped a hand on his forearm and tugged him around.
"You know about Koursesich? The patron saint of cleanliness and the aqueduct. And the Great Cathedral in Old Town. And the city as a whole, did you not know that?"
Topol shook his head, feeling very much a stranger.
"You'll find out," the man said. "But watch for the idiots who think that cleanliness means cleansing."
He asked Gustis when he got home. Gustis made a face. "Stupid Wheel-obsessed Marezhki morons," he said.
Topol wore a wheel. Everybody did, didn't they? Well, everybody whose mother was as religious as Topol's, anyway. She used to pray right around the spokes three or four times a day and she made him go to three services a week until he got old enough to work and he could beg off on the excuse that he was too tired.
"What? Your boyfriend back home was Marezhki?"
"I didn't have a boyfriend. But I'm Marezhki. I thought you were too. Isn't everybody?"
Gustis stared at him. "You mean that?"
"Well, I know not everybody is Marezhki. But we're in Marezhki More, and that means being Marezhki is the default. Right? There can't be that many foreigners, and you don't have an accent worse than anybody else in Boem. Less."
"How very tolerant of you."
Just before bedtime Gustis looked up from his laptop and said, "How about you go out with me tomorrow and see the Saint Koursesich festivities? Be entertaining, and who knows, you might learn something."
Topol shrugged. "Okay," he said. He had nothing else to do with his day.
That night he woke up for the first time with Gustis curled around him, grasping him tightly. Topol didn't try to extricate himself.
When he finally woke up, bathed in sunlight with the covers kicked off, Gustis was up, moving things around in the kitchen and singing something with an unfamiliar tone to it. Topol luxuriated in the light, and even indulged himself in a little belly exposure, quick, pulling his shirt down before he had to face Gustis.
"I'm glad I made you sleep in," Gustis said when Topol made it into the kitchen. "You look really good when you're rested."
"You're welcome," Gustis said. "We'll need to head out in less than an hour if we want to see the Koursesich parades in all their glory. And you better cover up really good - but don't look like you're trying to hide anything, that's as bad as being naked. Today, anyway."
"Why?" Topol asked.
"It shouldn't matter, you being Marezhki and all, but if you're standing with me and you're acting cagey, the assholes might get the wrong idea, and that could be awkward."
Topol scowled. It sounded like Gustis expected him to take offense at being labeled Marezhki. As far as he was concerned, nationality in the Consortium was just a thing to identify cheese and beer varieties with.
Gustis convinced Topol to borrow a thick hoodie, which seemed a bit much for such a beautiful day. They set out walking for the wide, circular Ostrovkasy Square, which Topol had crossed twice on his first day in town. The streets that led into it were wide, late-Empire style boulevards, lined with huge plane trees just beginning to unfurl their giant leaves. Temporary barricades had been thrown up all around the square. The crowds behind the barricades were thick but Gustis got them close to the front where they could just about see the road in front of them by looking around some people and under their armpits.
Though the people were standing elbow to elbow, they also seemed to be clustered in mutually hostile groups, judging from the signs they carried. Some said things like "Native Only," while others said things like "All Brothers." And then there were other signs that were more cryptic.
Topol started to ask questions but Gustis wasn't having any of it. Finally there was a noise in the distance. A cheer? It actually sounded like a hundred distant flushing toilets. And then whistles, shouts, drumbeats. Up on his tiptoes, Topol looked over the shoulder of the man in front of him to see the vanguard of the procession. It was daunting. There were tumblers crashing whips made of chains against the asphalt. They wore grotesque demon masks and had long streamers attached to their white jumpsuits, so that their bodies almost seemed to be chain whips themselves. Behind them, a great banner Topol could not read. And more signs and banners behind that. The clashing of the chains against the street, the booming and crashing of percussion behind them, and several overlapping rhythmical chants, all nearly drowned out the music coming from further behind in the parade. He couldn't even tell what kind of music it was, or whether it was live or recorded, from this distance.
Topol gasped as he recognized the military uniforms of the men carrying the big horizontal banner at the front of the procession.
They were authentic Lightning and Thunder uniforms, which he had thought had not been seen outside a historical movie in over fifty years. They were almost against the law, weren't they?
"So it's a history thing?" he whispered to Gustis. Even with all the noise, it seemed appropriate not to raise his own voice just now.
Gustis shook his head.
"Kinda," he answered, but scowled, and Topol subsided again.
Mixed in with the military uniforms were other costumes, priestly robes, and something reminiscent of old-time knights, all mostly black with a sprinkling of all-white, and somehow the white ones seemed more sinister than the black ones. It was all sinister.
And then he could finally see the words on the big horizontal banner. Or some of them. "Native Marezhki More," it read in white letters on a red background, with "virtue" words floating around the edges. Purity, Nobility, Loyalty, Chastity, and he couldn't see what the other ones were. The vertical banners dipped and soared in and out of his range. One of them said, for certain, "Native Marezhki Only," and another said "Defend Natives against Consortium." And there was a big sign, held high on multiple sticks, that was nothing but the slashed-circle forbidden symbol superimposed again and again on the names of various ethnicities that could be found in the Consortium. Topol knew some of them, of course: the Sapta and the Drenish, the Panskis, the Garabians, and the Guel-Golsh. But there were others he had never heard of, and one that looked familiar though he didn't know what it was: Zelnik.
Behind it was another, similar big sign, also with the forbidden slashed circle superimposed on words, but these were words like homos and scum and commies and perverts and freeloaders.
By now the main force of the procession was right in front of them. As they went by, more than one of these costumed marchers turned to the crowd and shouted things. Sometimes it was a chant about taking the country back from thieves and interlopers. Other times it was simpler: No perverts, or No Freeloaders. Topol's breath caught in his throat as one of the ones in the ancient-style robes turned right towards him, looking him right in the eye, and shouted No Sapta!
Absurdly, Topol's first reaction was to think, but I'm not Sapta, I'm Marezhki. But the volume of hatred didn't have to be correctly aimed at him to disturb him. He knew what people like this did. Even he did, and he had paid as little attention in history class as he could.
"Can we leave?" he whispered into Gustis's ear. Gustis shook his head.
Miserable, Topol looked around the crowd he was stuck in. He saw movement off to the side and behind: something was flying through the air. He found himself holding Gustis down, sheltering him with his body: but the thing was just a rock, and while it hit the person next to Gustis, it glanced off and apparently did little harm. Gustis threw Topol off and glared at him momentarily before taking the neighbor's face in his hands and asking "Are you all right?"
The man nodded, holding his shoulder. "I think there's going to be a bruise, but nothing more."
"Slip your shirt off. We should make sure."
"No!" the man said, moving his hand to the front of his shirt, fending Gustis off, though Gustis had made no move towards forcing the shirt off. Gustis looked at him for a bit and then said, "Fine, let's go somewhere more private and check it out." His gaze went meaningfully towards the sleeve, which was showing a little blood where the man had been holding it.
"What? No," the man said. "I don't know you."
Gustis leaned forward and whispered in his ear. The man frowned, but he let Gustis lead them all back out of the crowd.
When they had gotten a few streets away from the square, a wall of noise came rushing out of the crowd behind the barricade.
"We left just in time," the new man said. "It sounds like they rushed the crowd."
"I wonder whose side the cops are on this year? My name is Gustis and this guy's Topol," he added.
"Brezny." He turned abruptly into a passageway under a huge baroque facade. Gustis and Topol followed him past a gambling hall, a florist shop, and a cleaner, to a sunny interior courtyard set a few steps below grade, which was glassed over with the same kind of complicated skylights as in Gustis's apartment. It was full of exotic plants and had several tables set around it. There were a few people sitting at the tables drinking beer: they had all taken off their coats and their outer shirts, and were sitting in undershirts like the ones that Gustis leant to Topol. Even the women. No fashionable shell tops or camis here.
Gustis made a face and turned to Brezny. "Topol here's a Marezhki, he says."
Brezny looked startled. "All right," he said, dubiously, glancing over Topol like he didn't believe it.
"I don't get you. Everybody's Marezhki here, aren't they?" Topol said. "Isn't that the first thing you learn in school?"
"Sure, everybody's Marezhki, till assholes like those Nativists get their way," Brezny said, pointing to the bloody patch on his shirt.
"Let's find the bathroom so we can look at that and clean it up," Gustis said. When Topol made to follow, he said, "Why don't you get us a table and order us all some beer? I like the Tree of Life brand."
Brezny snickered. "Of course you do," he said. "Me too."
When they came out, there were three glass mugs of Tree of Life beer on the table. It was a dark, cool brown, and it had a faint mossy taste - not an unpleasant one, actually. Topol was glad he had decided to see what was so special about that kind of beer that it made this new guy laugh like that, because it tasted in its way like this concentrated sunlight felt on his bare arms: but he had no more idea why Brezny thought the beer was funny than he had before.
"You like that?" Brezny asked when he sat down. He, too, was wearing one of those undershirts, just like Topol. His arm had a great bruise on it, with a bandage covering the center of the bruise. "Not usually a Marezhki favorite."
"Topol's a very unusual Marezhki," Gustis said, and there was just a hint of bitterness in his voice. Topol frowned, and decided he would confront Gustis later, when they were more private.
The rest of the conversation was hard to follow, also, but Topol had questions to ask at least, and had an occasional opinion too. They were mostly talking about the Nativist movement that the marchers in the Koursesich parade belonged to. Topol couldn't understand why they weren't all behind bars. "It's against the law to attack people for who they are," Topol said. "It's against the law to incite violence."
"Who's to arrest them, when the police and half the courts are in sympathy with them?" Brezny said.
Gustis stared at Topol. "You think it ended magically just because they passed a law against it?"
"Things are really that hunky-dory in Walg?" Gustis went on, and there was no mistaking the bitterness in his voice this time.
"People aren't always nice to Sapta and the Drenish," Topol said. "But nothing like that parade. And no gasoline bombs like you were saying they try to use here."
"All you've got up there besides your precious Marezhki is Sapta and Drenish? Nothing else?" Brezny asked disbelievingly.
"A few actual foreigners, and I guess some people make a difference between Panskis and Welskis, but that's only because they're assholes. And the actual foreigners don't get much grief because they're either exotic and interesting or they're tourists with a lot of money and nobody wants to piss them off and have them not come back. We like their C-dollars too much."
Brezny and Gustis shared a look that Topol could not decipher. "You do know that Golsh and Drenish have been here as long as any Marezhki, right? And the Zelniks have been here even longer," Brezny said.
Topol knew that about the Golsh and Drenish, but he didn't know who the Zelniks were, but before Topol could ask any questions, Gustis said, "Well, it was nice to meet you, Brezny. You have my number: give me a call, and we'll get together sometime after Primavera."
"Sure," Brezny said. "I'm going to go find my girlfriend now. She had to work this morning."
Gustis and Topol made their way back to Gustis's flat in a strange kind of silence. Topol couldn't help feeling like the little boy who farted at Grandma's house.
The silence didn't clear up when they got back to the flat. Gustis adjusted the skylights and stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, and glaring at Topol, sat himself right in the middle of the couch to catch the last bit of sunlight while he did something with his computer. Topol longed to strip off - not down to his underwear, but all the way down - and he would like to help Gustis out of the last of his clothes too, but even if Gustis hadn't been cross with him, the tone of things seemed to have been irrevocably set in their first night together when Gustis had made it clear he wasn't interested in Topol.
It would be embarrassing to get naked with someone in all this light anyway, Topol thought. It had been years since he had let anybody see the green stuff. It was just too embarrassing, and people always wanted an explanation: but there wasn't any. Some people have freckles: some people have none. Some people have a lot of hair on their bodies: others have much less. Topol had green markings on his belly and neck and back, and - nobody else did.
There was absolutely nothing to do in the flat. Gustis didn't have a television and even if he had one, Topol wouldn't be turning it on now, while Gustis was busy and annoyed with Topol. Gustis's books were out of his league. The kitchen was already clean. No point in cooking when neither of them were hungry. It was too early to go to sleep, assuming he could have figured out an unobtrusive way to do so while Gustis was barricading the couch.
"I'm going out," he said at last. Gustis barely acknowledged him with a grunt.
There was a nonstop gambling hall down the block from the flat, but Topol only walked past it, hardly curious enough to peek at the doorway as he went by. In Walg, these things were illegal, but Boem had a reputation to maintain as the Sin City of the Eastern Consortium. A lot of things were legal here that weren't elsewhere.
With no objective in mind, Topol just walked around for a couple of hours, till darkness began to settle in and he began to feel it. He turned back towards the flat. He was only on the street behind the one where Gustis's door was - around a corner and then another corner - when dark shapes loomed out of the gathering shadows and somehow pinned him against the wall. The air smelled like beer that had been drunk and recycled several times over the course of the day, sour and musty. Topol twisted, but he couldn't get out of the hands that held him. He held his peace. If they hadn't decided for sure to kill him, he thought it was possible that anything he could think of to say might decide it for them. If they wanted his money, they could take it. He even had a few C-dollars on him, maybe they'd be appeased by it and let him go when they got it. Or maybe while they were looking at the money he could run.
"Too dark for you, is it?" one of the men said, punching him in the belly, not hard, but unpleasant.
"What are you doing out so late, nymph?" And another to the face. The guys were not pros at this, and not as big as Topol. He had a chance.
Nymph? That was a stupid insult. He shrugged. "Just going home."
"We're a long way from the Boar Forest. What's in your pockets?" One man on each side was digging into his pockets. One of them came up with money. The other pocket had his metro pass.
"Not much, Gary. See - five, six, sixteen C-Dollars."
"Not even a key," the other one said. "You're right, Gary. He lives in the forest."
The one called Gary leaned in close. "Tell you what, Zelnik. Nobody would miss you if we shanked you," he said. But he was hauling back for a punch, not a stab. And now, this split second, when the other two were occupied with the contents of his pockets and Gary was preparing to - no, throwing - his punch, there was the tiniest of windows, and Topol, calling on schoolyard and backstreet experience, kicked out and shoved his way through them and ran. The men behind him swore and he was sure they were following him, but he didn't look back. he just kept running. And ran through the courtyard door and into a mysterious place he had never been before, though it was the yard of Gustis's own block.
It was a strange yard, apparently containing a forest, and roofed over? His path was paved, so he could see it even in the dark, but he still had to dodge and weave a bit to get out the other side, trying three doors before he found one that was both open and close to Gustis's entrance on the other side. He leaned on Gustis's bell and hoped the man was not so upset with him that he would refuse to let him in. When the buzzer sounded he leap into the doorway and began taking the steps two at a time. By the time he had reached the last half-flight of stairs the adrenaline had faded and he wasn't running anymore. He was panting, and pulling himself up by the railing.
After a few interminable seconds Gustis appeared at the door, scowling. When he saw Topol, though, the scowl changed in nature.
"What happened?" he asked, as Topol stumbled in.
"Mistaken identity, I guess. Couple guys roughed me up, took my money and my metro pass, and called me by someone else's name."
"Really." Gustis's eyes narrowed. "What would that name be?"
"I forget," Topol said, and he did. For some reason, he thought of -"Something like a cabbage. And a nymph. I didn't think I looked like a girl."
Gustis made a face. "You need anything?"
"Just want to clean up and get to sleep. I'm going to have to walk to work tomorrow."
"Where did it happen?" Gustis asked, suddenly urgent.
"On Feuertrastis Street. Right back of the building, actually."
"Wait, back -?"
"Not in the yard, on Feuertrastis Street. I shouldn't have been walking there after dark. I knew it was sketchy on that side."
"Right, it's totally your fault some assholes beat you up and took your money."
"They only pushed me around a little," Topol said, grabbing clean clothes and heading for the bathroom.
Gustis made a disgusted noise, but Topol did not care to investigate whether he was disgusted with him or his assailants.
He stripped down and investigated his body. Bruises, and his face was scraped. He turned and twisted his head to look at the damage to his back. It wasn't bad, but he was annoyed to see that the green was brighter than it had ever been. He supposed it must have come from standing around outside and then going to that café with the skylight. It was disconcerting that the tendrils under his hair were greener than ever and crawling all over his back like ivy choking a wall. At some point he'd be green all over, and he wouldn't be able to cover it up with clothes or with long hair.
And what was it, anyway? He'd had it all his life and aside from a cryptic remark or two from his mother, he had never heard any explanation.
What if it was a cancer? What if he was metastasizing, right now?
He'd die, of course.
He wasn't going to die tonight, anyway, not unless you could die from embarrassment, so he just dabbed at the places where the skin was broken with wet tissues, which he dropped one by one into the toilet.
He had flushed the toilet and was washing his hands when the door opened. Topol jumped. "For a minute there, you had me convinced," Gustis said. "You seemed so dumb about it all. But come to find out, you're the greenest guy in town. Yodela said so, just now, so I thought I better check."
Topol's hand went involuntarily to the biggest single mark, a butterfly-shaped thing on his abdomen, just above the navel. "You mean this? My birthmarks? Yodela told you about it? Why would he do that?"
"Because that's why he sent you here," Gustis said, slowly, lifting the hem of his own shirt.
Topol closed his eyes. Finally.
But, "Look!" Gustis said, pointing to his own belly, which was graced with a green birthmark of it own.
"That's . . . big," Topol said, giggling when he heard what he sounded like. It was a graceful mass of tendrils, rather like a spider chrysanthemum altogether. He perked up. "You think we're related? You're the first person I ever saw with one of those."
Gustis shook his head in controlled exasperation. "That can't be true. Yodela said you guys got it on before you left Walg."
"I didn't see anything . . . Oh wait. I thought they were regular tattoos. They looked kinda blackish like that. In the dark. I didn't see much, anyway. We had our clothes on."
"Come on out of there," Gustis said. "I think we need to have a talk."
Topol grabbed at his shirt, but Gustis said, "Leave it off."
Topol hesitated once he was in the room. The room was creepy at night with the black sky showing. Gustis slid his hand under Topol's pulled-back hair and ran his fingers along the green lines. Topol gasped and moved away, but Gustis stopped him with his other hand, continuing to stroke Topol's green.
"Nice green you have," Gustis said, mockingly? Or at least teasingly. "Sensitive?"
"I don't know. Nobody ever touched me there," Topol said.
"Not even your mother? And you can't tell me Yodela didn't."
"No, and no. Nobody ever touched me there, like I said," Topol grunted.
"Really? Not even Yodela. That's surprising. He's a pretty touchy-feely kind of guy. And he didn't say anything to you about your green? Or his?"
"No. Could you stop?"
Gustis dropped his hand to Topol's elbow and pulled him to the couch. "Your green is really quite attractive. I'm surprised you haven't gotten into showing it off."
"It's freaky. Nobody else has it. Other people get freckles or something."
"You said your mother told you it runs in the family. So you knew other people had it. And now you know about more: Yodela, me, the guy we met today . . .there's actually quite a lot of us."
"I never saw any of it on anybody else until a few minutes ago. Yodela doesn't count because I didn't see it really. My mother never told me anything else about it. I thought it must be from my father because she hated it so much."
"Not your father. It was your mother. She has them. It doesn't matter about your father."
Topol frowned. "You don't know my mother."
"No, but I know that you can't have the green unless your mother does."
Gustis sighed. "Of course you don't know where it comes from if you don't know anything else. Your mother has to have it. It's an algae culture passed on in the womb."
Gustis was tracing the outlines of Topol's butterfly marking as he spoke. He looked down, drawing Topol's eye to Gustis's half-erection. "Sorry," he said,"where was I? If your mother doesn't have the algae, she can't pass it on. Not even a streak."
Topol shook his head. "Algae. But I've never even seen the ocean,"
"What? It's nothing to do with the ocean. - Oh, wait. Not all algae lives in the ocean. Some of it lives in us. Exclusively."
"No, it's not," Gustis said, leaning forward, his eyes wide and dark. "It's delicious. And useful. On sunny days we need less food. It saves money. And in the old days it saved lives. You can imagine. In the summer time, you could grow the same crops as the others, but you could save a lot more of it for the winter."
"It's a lot of freakishness to save a few C-dollars on groceries. I was afraid it was some kind of cancer. Because it has been growing."
"It's no more freakish than the whole human body. The organelles of the cell? All captured organisms that were once independent. The skin of the Nezelniks -"
"The people who don't have green. We're Zelniks, they're Nezelniks. Anyway, everybody's skin, even the Nezelniks', is a mass of bacteria and fungus and even tiny bugs. Our algae is no different. It's just more colorful and noticeable, on the one hand, and uniquely useful, on the other."
"Zelnik! That's what the guy called me tonight. When he was roughing me up. I thought it was a name."
"It is a name. It's a name for people who have green on them. Really, you never heard it before?"
"Did you say something about a guy named Zelnik who put in the skylights? That would be the first time. And . . . yeah, I heard it since, I just didn't notice. My mother just said we're Marezhki like everybody else."
"You probably are. It's not a race, anyway. Not unless freckles are a race. Look, you have work in the morning. Let's pull out the sofa and go to bed." He spoke with brusque finality, as if he was tired of talking to Topol, period.
Nobody remarked on Topol's bruised and scraped-up face the next day, and he didn't complain about his sore spots either, or the gritty and tentative feeling he had from a terrible night's sleep, even with Gustis wrapped tightly around him.
Feran had the workers split up into several crews and take the pieces they had been making out to various squares and shopping districts around the city for assembly into the Primavera market sheds. Topol went with Tsoris's crew to Ostrovkasy Square. He didn't think anything of it till they arrived. Empty, the square was broad and bleak looking, especially in the dim light of the day - it was miserable weather, cold and cloudy with an intermittent wind which took all the strength of the crew to hold the panels of the Primavera market sheds upright against it. There were remnants of the day before scattered around the place. Some crumpled signs drifting in the wind: Topol caught a glimpse of the forbidden slashed circle with the word freeloaders and another with the word Sapta and another with the word Zelnik. And an expended tear gas canister. And, on the cobbles right where he was holding a panel so his crewmate could attach it, a suspicious brownish stain.
They worked without any break for six grueling hours, fighting the wind, and knocked off because the Primavera market was all set up, including the cute little signs on each shed, installed according to a map Feran had given to Tsoris.
When they got paid off by Feran back at the courtyard, he said that they had two, maybe five, more days of work and then they were done. "But if you're around in four weeks when we take the markets down, you'll have some work again," he said. "Takes less to break down than to make crap." And then Tsoris offered Topol and another guy rides home.
He dropped off the other guy first. When he got near to the address Topol gave him, he pulled over and acted expectant so Topol lingered to see what he was going to say. It might be a job.
"So, kid, just a word to the wise," Tsoris said in his mysterious light accent. "You went out yesterday? Find out enough about Koursesich?"
"Yeah," Topol said, attempting a neutral tone, but failing.
"Bad, yes?" he said, indicating the scrapes on Topol's face with a glance. "But it gets worse on the Primavera Tuesday. That's a day I'd stay indoors, if I was you. Or me, for that matter. They don't like the Garabians any more than they like Sapta." Topol didn't correct him.
Instead of simply buzzing him in, Gustis came on to the intercom and Topol had to identify himself. When he got into the apartment Topol was surprised to see both that the apartment was as bright as ever even with the dark clouds outside and that Gustis was wearing nothing but boxers. Except for the night before Gustis had remained as covered up as Topol. It was kind of breathtaking. Besides the large spider chrysanthemum-shaped marking on his golden-brown belly, Gustis had flecks all over his chest that seemed to resolve into the shapes of dragonflies, and even a couple of little marks on his upper shoulders. Topol stared.
"Well, come on in," Gustis said irritably. Then: "Why are you home so early?"
"We knocked off after we got a big market set up over on Ostrovkasy," Topol said. "There's only a couple more days of work."
"You look kind of like shit. What were you doing?"
"We were just working kind of fast, I guess. And it was windy and cold."
"Did you eat?"
Gustis pointed to the couch. "And you're still shaky from getting beat up last night. Strip."
"What? And that wasn't a real beating."
"You take off your clothes and sit under the skylight, and I'll make lunch. After you've eaten and soaked up a little light you'll feel a lot better."
Swallowing, Topol turned away and complied, pulling his jacket and shirt and undershirt off with shaking hands. He had not noticed how much of a wreck he was. "There were bloodstains on the ground at Ostrovkasy," he said, as he went to work on his fly. It wasn't cooperating. It wasn't shyness. It was exhaustion. But he had only put in six hours of work. He gave up on his trousers and just fell back on the couch. The concentrated sunlight felt very good - better than anything he was used to. He rolled over and pulled his long hair away from his neck. He could almost feel the swirling stripes deepen and spread on his shoulders as he soaked up the light.
He drifted off to sleep, feeling warm and almost fed, and woke confused as Gustis nudged him to a sitting position.
"Didn't get very far with the stripping, did you? Doesn't matter. You probably don't have much green on the legs anyway."
Topol scrunched up his face to force the sleep away. "I kind of do," he admitted. "I never wear shorts or go swimming because of it."
"Let me see," urged Gustis. "After you eat."
Topol shuddered and looked longingly at the food Gustis was holding.
"Eat first," Gustis said, putting into his hand a roll stuffed with marinated vegetables. Topol obeyed, and obediently drank down the water that Gustis offered him as well. The way Gustis was looking at him was disconcerting, but it was disappointing when Gustis walked away and curled up over his laptop again.
"What are you doing?" Topol asked between swallows, immediately wishing he hadn't bothered Gustis.
Gustis looked up, a frown on his face. "Working."
"Sorry," Topol said. He had never gotten around to asking what Gustis did for a living or why he was always home when he got there
"I'm a bio-informaticist," Gustis said. "I do computer analysis of the results of genetic assays. Like the people who mapped the genome? You heard about that?"
"Yeah," Topol said, a little annoyed. He had left school at seventeen, with a simple completion and no special qualifications, and he wasn't a news hound, but he hadn't been living under a rock, either. "So which genome are you mapping?"
"The green, of course. The funders want to know if they can develop a strain that isn't so obvious - one with transparent pigments. They can't, of course. But I take their money, because they let me do basic research."
"Don't you need a lab for that? You're always here."
"I'm not always here. But the lab is run by biochemists, and I do most of my work from here. Are you finished? Take your pants off."
Topol giggled nervously. "You going to take samples or something?"
"You're not in the study. Do you need help with that?"
He almost did. He finally got his pants undone and pulled down to his ankles when he noticed that he had left his work boots on and he couldn't proceed. "Shit, I have no brains today," he said, and bent over to start untying them.
Gustis was across the room and bent over Topol's feet before Topol saw him put down the computer. "What -" Topol began, but found he had no breath to continue with the question. Gustis had his first boot untied and half off and was touching Topol's ankle, tugging at the sock. Topol's leg tickled and he twitched it back, almost kicking Gustis in the process. But Gustis had moved on the other foot and had him out of the boot and sock almost immediately, Then he sat back and waited expectantly. Topol swallowed.
"Well?" Gustis said. "Take them off."
"Why?" Topol asked, stupidly.
"I want to see," Gustis said. "You can't be deciding you're virtuous now, all of a sudden."
"No, but -" Topol sighed and arched his butt off the couch so he could slide his jeans off. Not that Gustis would see much when they were off: he was wearing long boxers underneath, like always.
"Off," Gustis repeated. Heart racing, Topol yanked off his underwear too. He drew his legs up and hid his crotch, though, just out of reflex.
"You're kidding," Gustis said.
Topol shook his head and forced his legs down so that his whole body was visible: even his half-an-erection. Which quickly became almost a whole erection as Gustis reached up and touched the scattered green leaflike shapes that decorated Topol's lower abdomen and upper thighs. Again, instinctively, Topol's hands reached of their own accord to cover his penis.
"No, let me see," Gustis said, batting away Topol's hands. Topol groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. The air was cool on his sensitive skin there, and then: fingertips manipulating the foreskin. Topol's eyes flew open. Gustis's face was awfully close to Topol's crotch. He was peering at the foreskin, which was a dusky olive color.
Gustis looked up and he was all smiles. "You're one of the greenest Zelniks I've ever seen." he said enthusiastically. Topol cringed, but Gustis went on. "It's beautiful."
"I don't think of it like that," Topol said.
"Of course not," Gustis said. He was still rolling the willow-colored skin of Topol's penis in his hand.
"Stop," Topol said. Gustis stopped, and then Topol wished he hadn't asked him to.
Gustis laughed. "Having second thoughts?"
"This is confusing," Topol admitted.
"I can see why. No worries. You can get dressed now." Gustis stood up and walked over to the chair, immediately wrapped up in his work again like nothing had happened.
Topol pulled his boxers on again, but decided that the rest could wait. He lay back down on the couch and went to sleep again.
The next time he woke up it was also because Gustis was waking him. "Let's go out before it gets dark," Gustis said. "I want to show you something."
It was still cold and grey outside, and if anything even greyer than it had been earlier when Topol was on the job. Fortunately Gustis didn't take him very far. Just into the yard behind the building, into the big glassed-over forest that Topol had fled through the night before. In the light of day it was a bright green, warm, attractive place, smelling of dirt and flowers. The ground in which the trees were rooted was covered with small plants as well, some Topol recognized, like mints and other wayside herbs, and others that looked utterly exotic. There were birds singing and chattering all through the branches overhead.
In the center of the yard was a tile-lined pool with a statue fountain in it, which Topol was glad he had not found the hard way the night before. Giant, fat, brilliant colored fish basked close to the surface of the water. There were three benches around the pool, and Gustis tugged Topol to one of them. Topol found himself gazing at the fish, and somehow leaning against Gustis. But Gustis still hadn't explained why they were here.
"What's the light like?" Gustis asked.
"Here, or outside?" Topol said. "It's nice in here. It's shit out there, as bad as Walg."
"Yeah, it's like this almost every day in here. Even better than upstairs. I guess they made this place after they'd already done the upstairs rooms and they learned some stuff about focusing and amplifying the light before they got down here."
They sat quietly for several more minutes. "Dalmi doesn't have any place like this that I know of," Gustis said. "But I guess nobody would think of it there because the weather's better to begin with."
The mention of Dalmi was unaccountably depressing.
A moment later, abruptly, Gustis started talking again. "We have to talk about a thing."
"Okay," Topol said warily.
"I want to fuck you. But it's not a condition of being here. It's just something I want."
"Okay," Topol said again.
"But when I touch you, you tell me to stop."
"Because I thought you didn't like me and it's just confusing."
"So you're okay with it?"
"Not tonight, though. You're thrashed. In a couple days, maybe. But before you leave, okay? Wait. Not that you have to leave. You don't have to. Okay?"
Topol only nodded. Gustis pulled him up and they went upstairs and Topol slept till it was time to go to work in the morning.
The next day they set up the Primavera market way on the other side of the city. Tsoris gave him a ride home from the job again. He made a point of warning Topol about Primavera Tuesday again. "Why do you guys put up with that?" Topol asked.
The pronoun might be wrong. Topol was one of those guys, too, apparently, no matter what his mother said. Being Zelnik might mean little to Topol, but it apparently meant something to the people with the chain whips.
"We don't. Some of us have an escort thing we do for the people who have to go out on that day. I'm not inviting you to join, though. It's a little dangerous and the cops are more likely to arrest us than the Nativists we're defending people from."
Topol considered. He wasn't a fighting guy. But there was that bloodstain in Ostrovkasy Square, and while maybe that should have frightened him, it kind of made him angry instead. And all these people telling him to be careful about just walking on the street and going to work. And there was Gustis, telling him he was the greenest he had ever met and -
"Let me give you my number," Topol said. "You might need another guy."
Dalmia could wait.