The next morning, after mustering up enough will to go through his routine, he took the chamberpot to the sewer opening and emptied it. “Thanks for filling it, fellas,” he grumped to himself, “At least none of you missed this time.”
With midday upon it, the shantytown was busy and full of activity. Children played in the narrow alleys, women did their laundry at the wash fountains, and dogs wandered about. After retrieving his water pitcher from his home, Azarola made his way to the well to fill it. Once he returned to his apartment, he quietly washed before picking up his guitar and leaving his sleeping roommates behind again.
His usual morning route included a stop in a narrow alley packed full of tiny eateries. He found an open stool at one of his preferred stalls and ignored that it wobbled when he sat on it. The owner quickly served up his order of two boiled eggs, butter on toast, and black coffee. During the day, the alley was a good place to get a cheap meal, but he avoided visiting it at night. Cleaning puke off his boots once was enough for him.
Sated, Azarola returned to his post in the plaza to play his guitar and wait for the evening. The weather was fair and the breeze refreshing, making the wearisome day enjoyable. The shadow of an airship clipped the plaza and he looked to the sky to watch it placidly float high above the city, never pausing in his song. As the sun dipped below the skyline, the girl with the bobbed red hair paused to listen. Azarola smiled at her and kept playing. Swallowing against his anxiety failed to alleviate the tension in his throat. “Hi,” he finally managed to greet without stopping his fingers.
“Hello,” the girl replied.
“I-I see you a lot around here.”
A grin plucked at the corners of her painted lips. “I would imagine so.”
“My name is Azarola,” he blurted, “What’s yours?”
“Rohita.” Her eyes glinted as they took stock of him. “You’re real Senviran, aren’t you?”
Switching his language from Inexan to Senviran, he answered in a paraphrase of an old ballad, “I can be as Senviran as the beautiful girl wants me to be. My heart yearns to please her.”
She giggled and waved her hand in a fanning gesture. “Oh, you! Do you say that to all the girls that pass by?”
Speaking in Inexan again, Azarola shook his head, “No. Just you.”
“I hope you don’t say that to all the girls that ask!” Rohita remarked with a lilting laugh. “But you’ll have to wait to please me until another day, sunshine. I have to go.”
Azarola stuttered for moment, “W-Wait, you could understand me?”
“Surprised?” She planted a hand on her hip and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Well, I only know a little. I’m still learning.” With fluid grace, she pivoted to walk away.
Azarola called out after her. “You’ll be coming by this way later, right?”
The click of her heels against the stone pavers paused. “Yes, but it’ll be very late, because I work at a nightclub.”
Azarola beamed, having the counter to her unspoken challenge. “Really? Same here! Which one?”
“The Silver Moon,” she answered proudly.
His brow raised the brim of his hat at that. The Silver Moon was a well-known and very popular place in the nightlife scene. He had tried several times to land a gig there, but the owners would not have him. “What would a nice girl like you be doing in a place like that?”
She smiled slyly and half-lidded her violet eyes. “Well, I dance with the unfortunate men who don’t have partners. That’s what I do. Where do you work?”
Azarola was almost ashamed to admit where, now that he heard of her prestigious position. “Emerald Paradise.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Rohita remarked, “A gambling hall, right?”
“There’s some dancing there, too. I play in the band.” He glanced at the station’s clock tower. “When do you leave work?”
“Very, very late,” she answered, “And I’ll be late if I stay to chat for much longer. Nice to meet you, Azarola.” She hurried out of the plaza, leaving the busker to his work.
He struggled to keep any sort of focus on the foot traffic and possible patrons passing by. Instead, he thought about how he could see Rohita again, preferably for a longer time. He worked over his ideas all through the night as he played his guitar at Rijan’s. Did she leave work before or after he did? Surely she had to catch one of the late night or early morning trains that passed through the plaza station. Loitering in the plaza at such an odd hour was bound to give him trouble, either by the police or by robbers. He was armed, he reminded himself, but that did little to help against the risk of the local authorities chasing him away.
Even so, after his shift at Rijan’s, he went to the plaza where he normally played. Despite the biting chill of the night air, he waited in the shadows, keeping his ears sharp for any sound of trouble all the while. Just when he thought that he had missed Rohita, he spotted her figure briskly walking under the lamplight toward the station. She clutched her long coat closed about her short dress as she hurried along.
“It’s dangerous for a girl to walk alone at night,” Azarola quipped as he approached her.
Rohita’s stance shifted to wary readiness. “Is that so?”
Azarola lifted his hands in a gesture of peace. She looked like she was about to draw a weapon on him. “Can I walk you home? Treat you to breakfast?”
She lifted her chin and planted a hand on her hip. “Sure, you can treat me to breakfast, but you can’t walk me home.”
Azarola cheerily bobbed his head. “Well, it’s a start.”
“Know of any good places on this end of town?” she asked as she led the way out of the plaza.
Azarola was caught off guard by the flirty sway of her hips and he verbally staggered and stumbled on his answer. Blinking and wrestling his attention back to the question at hand, he replied, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, I know a place that’s open at this hour.”
He escorted her to Barne’s Cafe and they took seats at the counter. “Her name’s Rohita,” he announced to the proprietor.
“Well! Not every day I see a face that pretty come in here,” the old man greeted with every sparkle of charm he could summon. “So, what can I get the fine young lady?”
Rohita scanned over the menu scrawled on the blackboard. “The savory crepe, if you please.”
“I most certainly do!” Barne turned to Azarola, “What about you? Another egg salad sandwich to go with your buttermilk?”
“Scrambled eggs and sausage, this time. Buttermilk, too.”
Soon, Faerd came in and complained to Barne about work over an order of fried ham and eggs. Azarola didn’t listen to the conversation. Rohita’s thoughtful stare owned his attention. “Um, is there something wrong?”
“No! Not at all,” she assured him. “It’s your hair I was looking at.” She pointed to the nearly waist-length mane that he wore tied at the nape, “The men who just dress up like Senvira for acts don’t grow it out. Not like that. You’re genuine.”
“A long haired boy and a short haired girl,” he reflected, “The world really is turned on its head.”
“Just the way I like it,” Rohita quipped with a playful tilt of her head. Her expression settled to one more neutral. “What was your name again?”
“Azarola. My friends call me Az.”
“Azarola. That’s an interesting name,” Rohita remarked, “I haven’t heard it before. Does your name mean anything?”
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Names have power and they say a lot about those who bear them,” she told him, “I was just trying to find out who you are.”
He chortled under his breath. “You almost sound like those mystics in the front of Senviran District.”
Rohita flashed her pearly teeth at that, flattered and proud. “Do you want to know what my name means?”
Shaking his head, he answered, “I don’t need to know. You’re still you, no matter what name you have.”
She propped her chin up with her pale hand. “What if I had no name?”
“That wouldn’t change anything.”
“Are you certain?” Rohita leaned closer and Azarola caught the rose and jasmine notes of her perfume. “I’ve seen people give themselves all sorts of names for all sorts of reasons. I met one guy who changed his name throughout the day and changed his character along with it.” She leaned back in her chair, making it creak. “See, if you wanted to go to the factories, you could just cut your hair, put some coveralls on, and call yourself Az. You would be just another workaday man. However, if you cut your hair another way, put on a suit, and introduced yourself with an Inexan name, you could walk into the office. If you change your name, you can change your life.”
Azarola shook his head in disagreement. “Who I am doesn’t change. It’s just the way everyone else sees me. As it is, I grow my hair out, dress like a postcard Senvira, and call myself Azarola, people believe in my music more. It becomes more exotic and exciting and people are more willing to pay for that. What’s underneath the name and costume stays the same. It’s all a performance.”
Barne soon served up their breakfasts. Rohita’s fork hovered over her plate. “So, you’re not Senviran?”
Azarola chuckled around a mouthful of eggs. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. Not this way.” He swallowed his bite and admitted with a shrug, “I’m a mongrel. Hope that doesn’t disappoint you.”
“Oh, not at all,” Rohita answered, “So, you were raised by the Senviran half of your family?”
Taking a deep breath, Azarola poked at a sausage with his fork. “Not exactly.” Spearing the meat, he popped a bite into his mouth. “What about you? You have an Ixpolian name, but you look like you’re from the Esena province. Why’s a nice girl like you working late nights in a town like this?”
“I’m taking care of myself,” she curtly answered. Rohita’s red lips pulled into a frown and she stabbed her fork into her crepe.
Azarola raised an eyebrow at the angry display, wondering if he touched a nerve. “Nothing wrong with that. You’ll be the stronger for it, right?”
At that, Rohita smiled. “Right. Even the fortunetellers at Senviran Street have told me that. Oh! Do you know a Madame Zuri?”
Azarola shook his head. “No. Never heard of her.” He cut into his sausage. “But I don’t spend much time in Senviran Street. I’m only here in Ixpoli during the winter months. In a couple of months, I’m leaving town until the autumn festivals are done.”
Rohita paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. “What? Why?”
“I travel the countryside, going from festival to festival,” Azarola answered, “I play my guitar during the events and make some money as I go. Sometimes I join up with other performers and sometimes I’m solo. It all depends on if we’re trying to get into the same place and they’re being nice to me. Now and then, I have to cut and run or end up getting in a fight. That’s usually a troupe, though. The whole many versus one thing puts some strange thoughts into people’s heads.”
Rohita leaned towards him, forgetting her plate. “So, you just wander the countryside all summer? That must be exciting! How long have you been doing that?”
He thought it over for a moment, taking a mental tally. “Well, this summer will be my fourth as a performer, but I started traveling well before that.” He reached over and patted he guitar leaning against the wall. “I was eleven when I learned how to play this. There was this group of players, Senviran players, that I met on the road out of Ixpoli that took me in. They got caught up in some bad business and they all went to jail some months later. I got away and came back here, so I could find some food and shelter for the winter. When the weather got warm enough, I decided to try my luck again and went south. Music may not be a big paycheck, but it beats the factories.” He waggled the fingers of his free hand in the air. “I’m less likely to lose these.” After a quiet moment of dining, he asked his companion, “I’m guessing that you’ve spent time outside of Ixpoli?”
“My family has a cottage retreat in the mountains that we visit during the summer.”
Azarola’s eyebrows rose and his jaw dropped. “Your family has more than one house and you’re a taxi dancer in a nightclub?”
Rohita shrugged with closed eyes. “I live my own life, now.”
“And your family approves?”
She snorted and leaned back in her chair. “Of course not! I don’t need their approval!”
Azarola chewed his bite of sausage thoughtfully, not sure how to safely reply to that. It didn’t seem right that a girl from a family of any wealth would be on her own. There had to be more to the story, but he decided that he wasn’t going to be that nosy. “Well, as long as you’re not going hungry.”
Sitting tall, she lifted her chin and pursed her lips. “I can take care of myself.” She finished her crepe and pushed her plate away. “Well, it was a lovely meal, Az, but I have to go home. Take care.” She picked up her suitcase and left the cafe.