After the third day, his belief that he would round the corner and see them – the kin promised by the Captain, and their wagons draped in bright colors – faded into a wary watchfulness with just the faintest tinge of doubt. After the fifth day, making his way by begging and the occasional filching of coin from careless purses, he had begun to lapse back into the street-child, trusting few and hoping for little. On the street corner in this strange town, he considered the silver he had snatched from a passing, self-satisfied merchant, and shrugged. Best to spend it for a meal, he thought, and shoved his hands into his pockets as he turned to dodge through the crowds. Somewhere quiet, where he wouldn’t be tempted to scan the faces for someone with his same dusky skin and black eyes.
That was a good one, that small tavern-front in the nearly-deserted alleyway. Just one person coming out, staggering a bit, and from what he could see through the grimy window, not too busy. Straightening his shirt and putting on his widest smile, Rudolpho pushed open the door.
Something about the way the bell sounded above him niggled at his memory, but he pushed it aside and stepped further in, letting the door swing shut behind him. Cleaner inside than it looked from the outside, with just one or two people scattered around; it probably got most of its business in the evening hours, when there would be more alcohol served than food. He nodded to the guy at the table closest to the door – a broad-shouldered man with a paunch and watery eyes, who lifted his mug in return. Rudolpho looked at him for a moment, as if almost recognizing him … why did he think the guy’s name might be … Stan?
The boy shook his head to clear it, and looked around some more. Surely there had to be a bartender or a waitress somewhere? As he started to cross to the bar, the swing-door to the kitchen pushed open and the waitress stepped out. Henna’ed hair, a skirt too short and a blouse cut just a bit too low, and a burning cigarette in one hand. Rudolpho froze in place – this wasn’t either Helgastop or Morrow’s Hold, but there she was nonetheless, with those steadily appraising blue eyes. Looking at him like she’d never seen him before in her life.
And behind her, out came the burly bartender, a tray of clean glasses in his hands. He nodded at the boy standing in the middle of the room, and set the tray down, deftly slipping the tumblers under the bar without even looking at his hands. “Looks like we got a customer,” he said in that same gruff voice. “You wanna take care of that?” he added, as the waitress looked ready to take a stool.
“Can’tcha seem I’m on break?” she retorted, and took a puff of her cigarette, blowing out the smoke as she looked at the boy. “You’re a little young to be drinkin,’” she said, but waved him closer. And gave a harder look as he stepped over only very slowly. “Your shoes filled with lead or somethin’?” she snapped, and that was enough to break him out of his reverie.
Rudolpho hurried over and scrambled on top of one of the stools to lean his elbows on the bar. “Whatever you have,” he said. With another puff, the waitress was back into the kitchen, and the sounds of pots and bowls and spoons could be heard. He half-expected to hear breaking glass. “Hey,” he said, leaning over further, whispering. He waited until the bartender leaned over to listen. “You’re Mike, right?”
“That’s what the name on the sign outside the door says,” the fellow said slowly, as if talking to someone without a full complement of mental abilities.
“And she’s Candy,” Rudolpho said.
“Yeah, sweet as sugar,” the waitress said as she backed out of the kitchen to set another tray on the top of the bar. “Stew. Milk. Bread. Eat up.” The service wasn’t the most elegant, but the food smelled good. And eating it gave him an excuse not to say anything as he watched the waitress saunter over to the morose man at the front of the bar and berate him good-naturedly about how he should hurry home to his wife. That done, she sauntered back and perched atop a bar stool with her legs crossed in that impossibly short skirt, and studied him again through the cigarette smoke.
“Whatcha starin’ at, kid?” Behind the bar, Mike polished the glasses, even though they didn’t need it.
“Seen you before,” Rudolpho said around a mouthful of stew. “Helgastop. Morrow’s Hold. Now here.”
“Never heard of those places,” Candy answered firmly, while Mike chimed in with his own decisive “Ayup.” She pointed the burning end of her cigarette at him. “And I think I’d remember if I’d been there.”
“Maybe.” This third time around, it didn’t seem so strange. Not after all the business with the circle of stones, and the dead coming to life at the Dun. Not to mention everything with the Star Dreamer, which seemed years away instead of just days. “You gave me a ring,” he said, and dug it out of his pocket to hold out on the palm of one hand.
After a moment of silence, she reached over and scooped it up on one fingertip, letting it slide halfway down her index finger as she looked at it. “Not mine,” Candy responded, and set her cigarette on an ashtray so that she could hold the ring up in her other hand to look inside. “The inscription isn’t in any language I know. It would say something like, `Candy, thanks for the laughs’ if somebody had given it to me.”
“Inscription?” Rudolpho gaped at her, and then at the ring. “But it doesn’t have -” Tossing aside his spoon with a clatter, the boy reached out to snatch the ring back, and turn it round and round until the light could hit the inner surface in just the right way. “It’s romany,” he breathed. And it hadn’t been there before, when he had looked at the ring in Morrow’s Hold. Two names, only …
Suddenly, he didn’t think he could swallow another bite around the knot in his stomach and with the way his throat closed around his breath. “It’s my papa’s name,” he said softly, touching the first. “And mama’s.” That was the second. All this time, hidden in his pocket, with him on the Star Dreamer . . .
“Romany?” the bartender repeated, as if he hadn’t heard the boy’s other words. Though maybe from the look he gave Candy, he had heard, and just decided it was best to leave it unremarked upon. “Doesn’t that mean gypsies?”
“I think it does,” Candy answered, waving at Mike to mix her a drink now that she was finished with her cigarette. “Some of them down at the marketplace,” she said conversationally to Mike. “All bright colors in their clothes, and performing magic tricks.” She stopped when the boy’s eyes, wide in disbelief and suddenly awakening hope, turned upwards to stare at her. “I guess, from your colorin’, that you’re with them,” she added.
“I -” He gaped, and groped for the words. Would it be his Uncle Valery, with all his cousins? Papa had told so many stories about mama’s brothers, and all the children they had – “I guess I am,” he said slowly. As he turned his gaze towards Mike, he could see in the mirror behind the bar a reflection of the windows at the front. And passing outside, a wagon with silk ribbons tied at every corner, with at least half a dozen people riding atop or inside, or walking along beside it.
Frozen in place, for a moment he didn’t notice how the waitress leaned over to close his fingers over the ring. “You better go,” she said softly, and when he looked at her, she was smiling. “And keep the ring. You’ll need it someday for your own wife.” In the back of her blue eyes, something vast and unknowable – and yet familiar and comforting – could be seen looking back at him.
He slid to the floor, and took one step towards the door.
Outside the window, the vague shapes continued to move towards the end of the street.
Rudolpho could feel it, something in the world shifting around him. And this time, he went without looking back, clutching the ring in his hand and almost tumbling into the street, scrambling over the broken cobblestones after the wagon. Over the sound of his own heart pounding, he could barely hear the cries ahead, as one boy atop the wagon and facing backwards, called out to the others. But he could see the wagon stopping, and other heads poking themselves out of the windows to look back at him as he ran forward.
<hurry>He knew that if he looked back, the door would be gone. So he looked forward instead, where one tall man was stepping out, his face so like mama’s, but with a neatly trimmed beard. Forward, where five – no, six, seven, eight – or even more, were climbing down and out and stepping around.
He could feel the ring pressed tight against palm and knuckles as he almost hurtled into Uncle Valery’s arms, without explanation, because they knew just by looking at him, or maybe one of them had dreamed it or the ghosts had whispered it to them, they didn’t even ask. He could feel it, clenched in his hand, the metal warm against his skin, the circle turning back upon itself, encompassing all the world within its bounds.