Chapter 05 -- The City of the Setting Sun
It was a slow trek down the rolling hills to the gates of Sunsetton, and by the time we reached the city night had fallen, leaving lanterns and torches as the only thing lighting our way. As we drew closer I could see an enormous checkpoint shining in the darkness, still heavily manned by men in khaki military uniforms even so late at night. It seems like it was one of the only places to get into the city, and it was exactly where we were headed
After another few minutes of approach, Bram steered us into line behind two or three more wagons before turning back to me.
“Alright kid, now they’re gonna come check the wagon, search the whole thing, so we ain’t even gonna try to hide you. But if you pretend to be asleep they might not notice anything too off about ya,” he said. “I’ll do my best to explain, give you a cover story, but if they do make trouble, don’t say anything and just let me do the talking. Got it?”
I nodded, rolling over in the back and pretending to be asleep. A few minutes later, we rolled up to the gate.
“Next!” A voice called from somewhere outside.
“Well shucks if I don’t know why I gotta get checked, Danny,” Bram joked from the front. “I’ve known you since you were a kid!”
A warm, cheerful voice rose to meet him.
“You know how procedure goes y’old man,” Danny said. “Just a quick check for you though, I know you’re not too much trouble.”
“Would have been a weird time in my life to start smugglin’ drugs!” Bram laughed.
“Oh I don’t know Bram, your daughter’s growin’ up, sons are almost men now. A lotta old timers like you could go for an extra bump of cash to retire,” Danny suggested.
“Alright, you got me,” Bram joked. “I got sixty kilos of black crystal back there. Put my hands up, you can take me in already officer.”
“Oh, cut it with the jokes Bram,” Danny shot back. “How’s the family though?”
“You got a pretty good idea,” Bram said. “Salwae’s gettin’ empty-nest disease already, what with Roger and Tim both done with their apprenticeships, and Samantha’s not too far behind.”
“What’s she tryin’ to do?” Danny asked.
“Not sure. She’s a workin’ woman like her momma, couldn’t convince her to settle down, take a husband and start havin’ grandkids just yet,” Bram answered.
“She’s a beautiful girl, she’ll go far,” Danny said.
“Yeah, well you better not be thinkin’ anything Danny,” Bram shot back. “I know you got a wife.”
“Yeah, somehow,” Danny laughed, before speaking briefly and quietly to someone else. “Anyway Bram, we’ll take a look anyway and get you goin’ in sharpish, I know it’s late.”
Danny whistled towards the back.
The tent flap opened, casting torchlight across my eyes.
I didn’t move. There was a quick exchange of voices and a gruff voice called back to the front.
“Who the fuck is this?” a man barked. I assumed he meant me, but I couldn’t understand him through what sounded like a mouthful of broken teeth.
“Calm down Rand, I’m sure it’s fine,” Danny said, walking around to the back and opening the flap again.
“Oh, shit. Hey, kid, wake up,” Danny said.
I kept up my act of being asleep, still following Bram’s orders from earlier.
“Cyrus!” Bram barked. “Wake up!”
I jumped at the shout and sat up, looking around.
There were two men, Danny, a man in his mid-thirties with smile-worn cheeks that matched his voice, and Rand, a man a little older than me with black hair and a scowl that looked like he’d been in too many bar fights. As soon as I’d sat up Rand had reached down towards his waist, but Danny put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“At ease man, it’s just a kid,” Danny said. Rand backed off a bit, still eyeing me.
“He with you Bram?” Danny asked.
“Yep, just a farm hand I’ve got helping me out this season. Work’s not as easy with me getting old and all, as much as I hate to admit it,” Bram explained.
Rand lifted his torch and leaned in, looking at me with enough intensity that I instinctively tried to slide away.
“Weird looking guy to be a fuckin’ farm hand, ain’t he?” he growled. Just like Bram, the two guards were darker-skinned than I was by a few shades, all seemed to have the same greenish eyes. I didn’t stand out by much, but the difference was clear when they all looked the same.
I heard Bram fall silent, and my heart started to beat harder.
“Where are you from, boy?” Rand demanded, leaning even further into the wagon.
I backed up into the corner, trying to stay quiet like Bram had told me to.
“I know you’re one of them fuckin’ animals,” Rand said, stepping even closer. “What, you too afraid to talk? You too afraid to answer me boy?!”
By the time he’d finished he was leaning in all the way across the wagon, hand slowly reaching down towards the sword at his side.
Cyrus, I hate to jump in here but you really need to say something.
Bram had told me to be quiet, he’d told me that he could handle it… right? I looked up towards the front, but Bram was gone.
“Boy, you got problems with my help you can talk to me about it,” Bram growled, having come around back. He squared up to Rand. “In my opinion, what he look like or don’t look like ain’t none of your damn business.”
Rand held his ground despite Bram having few inches on him.
“What comes in my city is my business old man,” Rand said.
“Your city? Boy, I been coming here since before you was born,” Bram replied. “Ain’t no one got a bigger claim to it’n me.”
“I don’t give a damn how long you been coming here old man, anyone tries to sneak a damn thwarp in my city I-” Rand started, but was interrupted by the echoing of a ferocious slap from Bram. Rand went down off of his feet, clutching his face and cursing while Danny grabbed Bram to restrain him.
“You got some balls saying that you son of a bitch!” Bram spat, struggling against Danny’s hold. “Where I come from we’ll kill a man says shit like that.”
“You got a death wish old man?!” Rand said, jumping up to his feet and picking his sword up off the ground.
“Stand down soldier!” Danny barked, suddenly pushing Bram back and drawing his own blade, bringing a silence over the whole group. Danny looked back and forth between the two men, and then around at the other soldiers, who had stopped what they were doing at the sudden commotion. Danny motioned to the rest of them to stand at ease before turning back to the two men.
“What just happened here is over. Rand, them’s fightin’ words, and there are men I know, men you know in this city, who would gut you like a fish if they heard you accuse ’em like that,” he started. Rand’s lip twitched, but he said nothing. Danny turned to Bram.
“And Bram, you know better than that,” Danny said. “I look up to you, I known you forever, and I expect better.”
Bram was also silent.
“Now, I want the both of you to shake hands like men, and we’ll put this all behind us,” Danny said quietly. “Bram, you get in your cart and you’re free to go, and Rand, you can take the night off.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Rand said, stepping towards Danny, who squared up to him.
“What, you see that sunbitch right there?” Danny said, pointing at me. “Take a good look. You really think that kid’s a threat?”
They both turned and looked at me, still subconsciously trying to shrink against the produce, and then Danny continued.
“Now I said shake hands like men,” he repeated.
Bram was the first to step up, offering a handshake.
“I know you was just doin’ your job,” Bram said, a hint of remorse in his voice. “Times like these got us all a little jumpy.”
Rand looked at Bram’s hand for a moment, like he was considering ignoring the offer, but eventually reluctantly shook it.
“Yeah,” Rand said, stealing a look at me.
“Good,” Danny said, before pointing to the cart. “Bram, you’re good to go.”
Rand gave Danny a sour look but no further protest, and Bram walked past the two of them towards the wagon.
“Thank you Danny, I’ll be seein’ you around for drinks before I leave,” Bram said, tipping his hat and walking back to the front of the cab. After a few seconds he cracked the reins and the horses were moving again, bringing us further into the city.
My first look at the inside of Sunsetton was a short one, a brief glance out of the wagon window as we passed through. People were still up even this late at night, a clamor coming from a few well-lit pubs as we made our way down the street, and a few windows in buildings lit with candlelight. There were signs of celebration too. Bottles were scattered across the ground, flags and ribbons across the ground, lights and lanterns that had been piled up and looked like they were waiting to be taken out.
Before long, we made our way into a long set of checkerboarded streets a few blocks off one of the main roads, finally stopping in a gated section that Bram opened and lead us into, before hopping out of the wagon and tending to the horses. Once he’d unsaddled the girls and gave them some feed, Bram came back over to me, speaking for the first time since the gates.
“You alright kid?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
He nodded to himself, briefly considering saying something else before deciding against it.
“Good. Let’s get to bed,” he said.
For the third time I had strange dreams, where it felt like there was someone watching me, only this time I kept waking up, looking for someone in the wagon, or outside. Over and over again, like surely this time I’d catch it staring, but… nothing. Just like on the beach, there was no one there except Bram.
After a while I slipped into blissful unconsciousness, resting for a few precious hours before eventually waking up to the sound of Bram cooking outside.
“You sleep alright?” Bram asked, as I climbed out of the wagon, stretching my legs. “I heard you tossin’ and turnin’ all night.”
I shrugged, looking around. The section of the market Bram had parked his wagon in was basically a big grid square on an enormous checkerboard that took up a big portion of the city, where all of the visiting merchants stayed. A few people had stopped by the night before, coming home from an evening of drinking, old friends of Bram all in for market in the coming days. Bram had explained to me that the end of harvest season was a huge time for Sunsetton, as anyone with anything to sell sent it through here and out all across the country before winter started to creep up.
The celebrations across the city had been for a different reason though. Apparently, the day before I had arrived had marked the seventh anniversary of the end of the war, and the start of the New Edaran era, whatever either of those things meant.
Against who or what, or for what reason the war had happened, I still had no idea, and I hadn’t wanted to raise suspicion by asking.
“I’ll ask you again, you alright boy?” Bram asked, noticing the enormous pause as I’d completely zoned out. I shook my head to clear it.
“Just a lot on my mind I guess,” I said, walking over towards him. He’d set up a little cookfire and table with a bubbling pot on top, which cut through the cold mist still settling in the air.
“Yeah, I can see that.” Bram said, handing me a cup of oatmeal. It was bland and a little too hot, but I hadn’t eaten in… god, I didn’t know how long it had been.
“There’s more where that came from so don’t worry about savin’ it,” Bram said, looking at my hungry expression.
At his permission I wolfed the oatmeal down hungrily, along with the next serving, and then finally stopped after a third to savor the fourth.
“Damn, how long’s it been since you’ve eaten boy?” Bram asked. “You coulda told me and I’d have whipped you something up out the back.”
“I didn’t stop to think about it,” I said, finishing the fourth cup and reaching for a fifth, “but it feels like a long time.”
“Feels like?” Bram asked. “You know what happened? Before I found you on the beach?”
Didn’t I want to know. I furrowed my brow, thinking back. It wasn’t easy.
“It’s hazy,” I said. “I remember a lot of people screaming… just chaos, like I couldn’t focus on anything... and after that I remember water. Lots of water for a long time it feels like, and then just blank. Well, until I woke up on the beach. There are bits and pieces before that too, but I can’t really focus on any of it. That’s weird.”
Bram was looking at me funny, and I was feeling the same way. What had happened?
“You know I ain’t seen it in person before, but I heard ’bout people who get in shipwrecks and sound a little bit like what happened to you.” he said.
I picked my head up.
“Shipwrecks?” I asked.
“Yeah, well usually they just wash up dead. Seen a few like that, thought you was one of them, hence the pitchforking around -- so, sorry about that. But sometimes you hear ‘bout people washin’ up on shore half-dead, can’t remember their own damn name,” he said. “Maybe that’s what happened to ya?”
I thought as hard as I could, but there was still nothing. A shipwreck certainly fit some of what I remembered but… something felt off. C decided to chime in.
I’m not getting anything better.
“Getting anything better? Why would you?” I asked.
I don’t know, I’m a voice in your head. Maybe I can figure shit like that out. Wouldn’t that make sense?
“I mean go for it I guess,” I conceded. “You got the time.”
“Cyrus you realize you are talking to yourself, right?” Bram said.
Suddenly being called on my conversation with C was enough to make me nearly jump out of my seat, something that Bram raised a bemused eyebrow at.
“I’m startin’ to think we might be on to somethin’ here,” Bram said. “Because honestly, you seem like you got more than a few screws loose up there if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
I’d say that’s pretty spot on.
“Yeah, you don’t have to remind me,” I muttered under my breath, before turning to Bram.
“Yeah, you might be right,” I said. “Although I don’t know how that helps me.”
“Well there’ll be records, won’t there? People keep track of when boats just don’t show up, right?” Bram asked.
“Yeah… Yeah! I’m sure someone does,” I said.
“What you need’s the Port Authority. Located down at the harbor, keep track of all of the comings and goings, so if anyone knows, it’s them. And if not they’ll know who to put you in touch with.”
“Yeah, that’s a great idea,” I agreed.
“And we got the time, usually takes me a day or two to get everythin’ sold.” Bram said. “We’ll get you on down there and getcha lookin.’”
“You’re a smart guy Bram,” I said.
“Not smart, just experienced. If I’d been smart there’s no way I’d still be doin’ this after all these years,” he said with a wink.
“Oh come on Bram, I’m sure you do all of this because you love it, right?” I asked, looking around. Bram shrugged, kicking back on the chair.
“Maybe I do,” he said, looking up at the sky, which was just now starting to brighten to blue. “I mean there’s nothin’ quite like seeing that beauty above you.”
I kicked back and looked up with him.
“But that don’t mean I never thought about somethin’ more,” he said with a sigh. “I mean, c’mon, you can’t tell me that every time you look up at that sky you don’t wonder ‘bout everything else that’s underneath it don’t ya? I mean I’ve been workin’ the same plants, same roads, same track for almost thirty years. Part of me wishes that I’d gotten up and gone off to adventure when I was a little younger. God knows I was plannin’ to.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
“Life gets in the way don’t it? I met the love of my life. Salwae, most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and I swear to ya, most beautiful woman I’ve seen since. As soon as I had enough money to support a family I proposed to her, had a wonderful wedding and nine months later I had my first son, and the rest is history.” he said.
“I think I’d like that someday,” I said. “To have a family.”
“I’d highly recommend it, but if you got business to attend to in life I might say wait a little while. Ain’t nothin’ like that first moment you have a child, when you hold that tiny little ball of life and say ‘damn, that’s a part of me’... but it changes everything. You can never really think of yourself again. Everything is not just you, it’s a ‘we’,” he said. “And then before you know it they’re all grown and off into their own world, and you’re thirty years older asking where the time went.”
I heard a hint of melancholy creeping into his voice. I could sense the love there, but there was a strain.
“What would you have done... if you’d gotten the chance to adventure?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” he said. “But ain’t that just the beauty of it? Could have set off to travel the world, started walkin’ with nothin’ but my wits and a few coins to keep me fed. God, part of me would kill for a chance to just get up and see things, ya know, just to see what’s all out there. Shit, I don’t know if I been more than 50 miles from home in my entire life, and there’s a hell of a lot more than that out there. ”
When he had finished, he looked back at the ground. I was silent, no idea what to say. It turned out that I didn’t need to say anything.
“But you know what I probably would have found?” he asked. “Out there in that big world?”
“What?” I asked, almost a whisper.
“Probably would have found that no matter how far I went, no matter how many things I saw and people I met, there wouldn’t have been no place for me except the one I ended up at. With a woman I loved since the day I saw her, and some kids who make me prouder than anything in the entire goddamn world,” he said, a smile creeping into his voice. He nodded. “Yeah, I don’t know everything, but one thing I do know -- from the bottom of my heart, from my toes to my head -- is that the life I’m livin’ now is as good as any dream I coulda come up with, and for that I thank my lucky stars every day.”
After a pause, he looked back at me and patted me on the back.
“Sorry for draggin’ you into the thoughts of an old man,” he said with a chuckle, getting up and putting away his oatmeal.
While I finished up eating and helped him clean up the oatmeal, Bram sat me down and laid out the work for the day.
“Now I work wholesale, basically selling to other merchants, and I’ve got a lot contacts that I built up through the years. Now for that stability you pay a little off the top, so I ain’t gonna be turning huge margins but it’ll be damn well enough to keep me happy and fed for the winter,” he said.
“Seems like a good system,” I agreed.
“Yeah, it works for an old man like me,” he nodded. “So where you’re gonna come in is runnin’ back and forth…”
“Damn, we’re gonna need to grab you some new clothes. Ain’t nobody gonna believe you’re working for me lookin’ like that.”
Once again, I self-consciously looked at my outfit, but Bram waved a dismissive hand.
“Well anyway, for right now you’re gonna help me unload everything, and then I’ll see what I can grab for ya while I’m out makin’ the first run. Explain the rest as it comes. Sound good?”
“I think I can do that,” I responded.
“Yeah, should be alright,” he said, before putting a finger up and pausing.
“One more thing to remember though, keep your head down, don’t make a scene. Walk quick, go straight where I tell you to, and don’t say anything to anyone except what I tell you to say.”
“Understood,” I said. “I didn’t forget what you said about keeping my wits about me.”
Bram nodded, satisfied.
“Glad to hear somethin’ stays around in that head of yours,” he said with a hearty laugh.
I was about to retort when I heard the grinding of wheels as a wagon came around the corner, and the distinct sound of someone calling out orders.
Bram and I looked up just as a merchant in fine clothes strode into Bram’s section, flanked by five other workers. Almost like they didn’t see us, the lead merchant was talking to the others, assessing Bram’s stock.
“Excuse me gentlemen, what’s goin’ on here?” Bram asked, a little peeved.
The merchant looked over at Bram.
“You the wholesaler in this section?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s me,” Bram answered.
“I’m interested in making a purchase,” the merchant said, pointing two of his aides towards the wagon.
Bram stood up, walking over and getting in front of them.
“Now there’s a right way to buy from a man’s stock and there’s a wrong way, and you sure ain’t doin’ it right,” Bram said, arms crossed.
The merchant rolled his eyes, reaching to his belt and pulling a badge out.
“My name is Renner Stanz from the Central Agricultural Service. A bad crop season in central has created a need to dip into the perimeter for help,” Stanz said.
“Well I’m sorry, but I ain’t one for charity. Got my own people to feed.” Bram responded pointedly, without looking at the badge. Stanz sighed.
“Sir I’m not trying to take your food for charity, I’m trying to purchase your entire shop,” he said, nodding to an aide, who handed him a briefcase.
Bram took a step back at that, before instinctively shaking his head.
“Like I said, that ain’t the way I do things, got people I’m trying to sell to-”
“And I’m sure that they’ll be bought out as well,” Stanz interrupted, getting impatient. “This is a massive scale outreach, I’m sure every single farmer will have their stock cleaned out by noon.”
Bram’s eyes grew wide, as Stanz continued.
“Now I don’t have much time, how much for the whole lot, including the wagon,” Stanz stated.
“W-Wagon ain’t for sale,” Bram stuttered.
Stanz rolled his eyes again, but turned and nodded at someone, who shrugged, and went around the corner, shouting at somebody.
“Fine, how much for the whole lot?” Stanz continued, turning back to Bram. Bram shrugged, never uncrossing his arms, and starting to get a little more of his confidence back.
“Well normally, I’d sell it all for about… ten K, but like I said, I got people to work with that-”
“I’ll give you fifteen K for it,” Stanz said.
“Fifteen K?” Bram asked, and then shook his head again. “Now you’re tellin me to-”
“Fine, eighteen K, final deal, is that be sufficient?” Stanz asked, obviously ready to finish the business.
Bram considered the number, taking another step back to his wagon and assessing his wares before finally nodding.
“Yeah… yeah that’ll be just enough,” Bram said, finally turning back to Stanz. “Have your boys unload it and we can draw up the paperwork.”
“Good,” Stanz said, and whistled to a few more workers, who came in and began unloading the wagon, including the pig, and bringing its contents outside.
I waved a mental goodbye to the pig as it went by. Even my conversation with it had just been C playing a prank on me, I felt some sort of camaraderie.
Godspeed my porky friend.
C and I shared a brief moment as we watched the pig leave.
In the real world, Stanz pulled out a folder with a number of documents inside, of which one was quickly inked and signed by both parties.
“Well, thank you for your business,” Bram said, offering a handshake.
Stanz quickly shook Bram’s hand and left, saying nothing else. In another minute or so the men were gone, leaving Bram and I alone with a now-empty wagon.
For a brief moment, we stood there, silent.
“That was quick,” I offered. Bram looked at me like he’d just seen the pig fly, before clapping his hands together and jumping up into the air, kicking his heels together.
“Woohoo I’m rich boy!” he whooped, “I’m a goddamn rich man.”
He started to prance around, obviously ecstatic.
That was when it clicked in my head.
“Wait, how much was all of that really worth?” I asked.
“Couldn’t have sold it for more than four K if I was lucky!” Bram responded, breaking out into a hearty laugh. “I knew he was gonna highball me, so I said ten trying to get him to haggle down, and now I got a check sittin’ right here worth eighteen!”
“Yeah, holy cow,” I said out loud.
“You’re damn right boy!” Bram said, rubbing my head affectionately. “You are damn right.”