Borsen watched his unexpected house guest eating Mordanian nut cake as if it was the last in the world, and he was going to consume it all. Dahrien was delighted whenever Stevahn, chuckling, would plop more whipped cream on top of the cake whenever, as he said, it ran dry.
Dahrien finally ground to a halt. Borsen asked if he’d had enough dinner.
“I’d eat more, but there’s nowhere to chink it,” was the reply.
“Well, since I’m not hospitable enough to have you sleep in one of the beds while you’re dirty, what do you think of a bath?”
Stevahn had started filling the big tub in the master suite halfway through the meal. Dahrien followed Borsen upstairs and a moment later could be heard throughout the house, exclaiming in amazement at the tub. Splashing followed, accompanied by boyish whoops of delight.
Borsen came into the kitchen while Stevahn was trying to convince Varnia that she had as much of a notion of what was going on as he did.
“I need some lanar oil. His head’s covered with lice,” Borsen said crisply. “You both should come see his condition, in case measures need to be taken against anyone.”
Armed with the lanar oil, Borsen marched back up the stairs with Stevahn and Varnia in his wake. The stiffness of Borsen’s back gave Stevahn warning he was about to see something he wouldn’t like.
Dahrien was having a marvelous time plunging around the tub like a baby whale. A liberal dose of liquid soap had been put in the water and the child was nearly lost in drifts of white bubbles.
“Bring that itchy head over here and we’ll see an end to those crawlies,” Borsen directed, his tone light though his expression was grim. Dahrien came wallowing over and stood up.
Stevahn nearly lost his dinner. Varnia’s jaw clenched.
Dahrien’s body was pitifully thin, his arms and legs like sticks. Hardly any of his skin was free of bruises. As he turned to let Borsen thoroughly anoint his head with the fragrant oil, Stevahn could see the worst of the injuries were on his buttocks, which were deep purple, black and all shades of yellow and green.
“Look.” Borsen reached into the water, lifting one of Dahrien’s feet free of the bubbly froth.
Stevahn closed his eyes. A deep ulcer, practically to the bone, caked with filth despite the bathwater, almost covered the ball of the diminutive foot.
“My shoes have holes,” Dahrien said matter-of-factly. “I put in paper and cardboard I find but it goes through fast with all the snow around.”
“We must send for Papa and Doctor Franz,” Borsen said softly. Varnia left immediately to send a Rollig to the Palace. “I need a fine-toothed comb,” Borsen said next.
“I… I don’t think we own one,” Stevahn said, at a loss. Such combs weren’t needed at their house.
“Give me my finer one. It should do,” Borsen instructed. He began using his prized, elegant, horn comb on Dahrien’s oil-draggled locks with expert care, dipping it regularly into a glass of spirit to kill the evicted insect life he collected.
“You might have to shave it off,” Stevahn suggested after a moment. The number of lice was nauseating, between the ones in the spirit and more that fell from the child’s head onto the towel Borsen wrapped around him.
“I thought of that, but I can’t bring myself to do it,” Borsen replied, his jaw tense.
"I'm sorry for bringing bugs in,” Dahrien said fearfully.
“As if I haven’t had a lousy head many times in my life when I was little like you?” Borsen answered. “Here, you’re getting cold. Back in the hot water!”
Dahrien plunged in. Borsen picked up a washcloth and tossed it to the boy. Stevahn was relieved when he saw the child actually knew how to wash.
“Receiving guests in the bath like Surelian emperors?” Menders’ amused voice asked behind them. Then he fell silent as he saw the Dahrien, covered with foamy bubbles, alternately scrubbing a matchlike arm and kicking up small splashlets with his ulcerated feet.
“What the hells?” Doctor Franz said behind Menders.
“Papa, Doctor, this is Dahrien,” Borsen said calmly. “He’s staying with us tonight and I think he could use a look-over. He has some nasty sores on his feet and some bad bruises.”
Doctor Franz’s long medical practice made him practically immune to any circumstance of life. He sat on the low wall bordering the tub and smiled at Dahrien.
“Well then, why don’t you come over here, Mister Dahrien? I think this water could use a change. I’ll give you a looking at while the tub fills up again.”
Stevahn made the necessary adjustments to drain the tub while Franz wrapped Dahrien in a big towel Varnia had warmed, then sat him on his knee. Within seconds Dahrien was giggling as Franz proclaimed there were potatoes growing in his left ear and lanar trees growing in the right. Borsen took Menders aside and explained how he had found the child. Stevahn left Doctor Franz to his examination and joined them.
“I couldn’t leave him there, Papa,” Borsen concluded. “The orphanage is overburdened now. The other charities were closed. And I don’t think I could have just dropped him at those places.”
“No, he’s too frail for the orphanage. The reforms haven’t been fully implemented there yet. The other charities would turn him back out on the street after giving him a meal,” Menders agreed, watching the little boy talking to Doctor Franz. “He seems chipper enough, though he’s obviously fragile and malnourished. Bright little fellow?”
“It seems so. We haven’t talked a great deal, but things he says… what am I saying? Yes, he’s bright. Very. He’s the Gerrycart King.”
“Yes, I recognized him.” Menders was silent for a long moment.
“These are prophetic times, Reflection Of My Friend,” he finally said. Borsen looked somewhat harried. Menders laughed. “Go day to day and see what needs to be done with him,” he continued.
“You’re Uncle White Eyes from The Palace!” Dahrien announced just then, looking around Doctor Franz into the bedroom.
“I am indeed, but you should call me Menders.” Menders went to sit beside Doctor Franz, taking his notebook from his pocket. “Who are your parents, young man?”
“Dansen and Faral Tailors.”
“And, where are they?”
“They moved out to Samorsa. Them and the other brats. I didn’t want to go, so when they said anybody what wasn’t there when they left would stay behind to be taked by the Revenants, I said good enough and wasn’t to home. I can take care of myself and I’m tired of taking care of lazy folk.”
“You took care of them?”
“I brought home more food than anyone else.”
“Where did you get food?”
“Lots of places. Like I telled Borsen, behind restaurants. Malvar’s is the best. Others too. I make fares with my gerrycart and I sing in the street and people give me money and I sweep the horse shit and trash aside so people can cross. Folk give me coins and then I buy food. I don’t steal and I don’t beg. That’s for folk what don’t want to get anywhere. I want to be like Borsen and have a big watch chain.”
“Borsen’s watch chain is famous,” Doctor Franz agreed, studying Dahrien’s tiny foot. “Does this sore hurt you?”
“They hurt a bit, but once you get enough dirt into the holes it isn’t too bad,” came the answer. Borsen shuddered. Stevahn put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
“All right, now the tub is full enough, so back you go,” Doctor Franz directed. “Give your head a good scrub and then we’ll check for more bugs. It looks like Borsen got them all, but you can never be too sure.”
“Dahrien, do you know how old you are?” Menders asked, writing in his notebook.
“Of course! I’m six!” came the answer from the happily wallowing baby whale.
“And do you know your birthday?”
“Of course! Fifth of last month.”
Menders wrote it down. “Is Faral Tailors your mother then?”
“No. My mother is dead. Her name was Thellira.”
“Do you remember her?”
“Of course! She was good and smart too. She taught me never to steal, to follow The Way of Light.”
Borsen turned away, struggling to control himself. Stevahn put an arm around his shoulders. Borsen had lost his mother at Dahrien’s age. She taught Borsen never to steal, though their situation was always desperate. She’d also taught him the moral code of the Thrun, The Way of Light. The love and guidance of his mother during the first six years of Borsen’s life had kept him alive and sane before he went to live at The Shadows.
“Your mother sounds very wise indeed,” Menders said quietly.
“I love her muchly,” came the answer.
“Who put those bruises on you, Dahrien?” Menders asked next.
“Shopkeeps mostly, cause they think I steal, but I don’t. The bad ones on my karzi was a shopkeep. Kicked me out, he did, right into the street. One, two, both feet on my arse even though I told him I had money to buy. It hurts still. My father put some bruises on me too.”
Menders asked the names of the shops where Dahrien had been abused and wrote them down. Borsen committed them furiously to memory.
Dahrien endured the deep cleaning of the sores on his feet stoically and watched with interest as Doctor Franz applied an ointment and bandaged them. He was dried, swathed voluminously in one of Borsen’s nightshirts and given a cup of warm milk to sip from while the adults had tea. He refused a chair, climbing onto Borsen’s lap. He sat there contentedly, his eyelids at half-mast.
“I’ll put some operatives onto finding his parents but I wouldn’t hold out much hope,” Menders said. “If they really walked away and left him behind, even if he wasn’t there at the time they were leaving, they’re not worth having.”
Borsen scowled, indicating Dahrien, but Menders shook his head.
“I’m a very good judge of young people, or folk, as Dahrien would say,” Menders said. “He’s telling us the truth about his situation. He’s extremely bright, forthright and honest. He knows this about his parents already and made his choice accordingly.”
“Papa, he’s six years old!”
“Some young people I’ve known were considerably adult at an early age, including yourself,” Menders replied, looking into Borsen’s eyes. “Now, Franz and I need to get back, because Katrin’s embroiled in a reception at The Palace that’s more work than play. I’ll look in on you tomorrow.”
Dahrien had fallen into a deep sleep while they were talking. Stevahn took him from Borsen and carried him to the vacant bedroom down the hall from their own. Dahrien didn’t stir as he was tucked in.
Borsen walked up the steps of his store with Dahrien on his hip the next morning, before business hours. Dahrien was oddly attired in a pinned together assortment of Borsen’s garments and a heavy shawl. Stevahn had tossed Dahrien’s louse-ridden rags in the furnace, including the broken shoes with the holes in the soles. Only then had they realized they had nothing for the child to wear. Borsen couldn’t bear the idea of Dahrien trying to walk on his damaged feet in socks, so he was carrying him everywhere they went, despite his much-diminished strength and energy.
“Now, we’ll go down to the boy’s department and see what will fit you,” Borsen was explaining when Evergreen rushed up to him from where she’d been watching the changing of a display while the head of the art department explained the process.
“B-Borsen! You’re not s-s-supposed to be h-here… oh.”
“This is Dahrien,” Borsen explained.
“You gave me a pennig yesterday, lady,” Dahrien announced.
“W-why I … y-yes I did. H-hello, Dahrien,” Evergreen said, recovering her aplomb. “You sang a l-lovely song for m-me.”
“I can sing it again!” Dahrien launched into a ballad involving green forests and fair maidens, carolling the many ‘fa-la-las’ in a high treble, true to pitch and rhythm. Borsen managed not to laugh and Evergreen was too stunned to do much more than listen and applaud at the end.
“I don’t need another pennig though,” Dahrien said when his song was done. “I’m here to get some clothes what fit, because Stevahn burned my old ones. They had crawlies in them.”
“Thank you for announcing it to the store at large,” Borsen chortled, tacking toward the boys’ department. “Now, I’m going to put you down if it won’t hurt.”
“Those bandages keep my feet from hurting. You worry about those sores too much,” Dahrien said helpfully, looking around with wide eyes.
“Have you ever been in here before?” Borsen asked.
“Once I came in and had a look, but I didn’t come over here. I thought they would throw me out,” Dahrien answered.
“So long as people behave and don’t steal, they don’t get thrown out of Borsen’s. Now let’s start with shirts.” Borsen could size up a body at a glance. He quickly found readymade shirts that would fit. He turned to hold one up to Dahrien to be sure.
The child was staring at the wall as if the god Grahl was manifesting there.
“Oh. Could I have that? Please, could I have that?” Dahrien breathed.
Borsen followed the child’s rapt gaze.
In a moment of madness a year or so ago he’d hand stitched a little boy’s suit. The idea of applying the exquisite techniques he used on adult clothes to miniature garments had appealed and he’d thought someone would pick it up for the novelty. He’d forgotten that growing out of things was a factor in attiring little ones and felt like a fool when it lingered in the boys’ department. It was a stunning little suit, almost identical to the one he wore today in his favorite goldish shades of gray.
The suit was complete down to a miniscule waistcoat and tie. Out of whimsy, his main hatter had made a little top hat to match and the store walking stick maker had created a little stick.
The entire ensemble had been untouched ever since, because no sane parent would pay the cost of a hand stitched Borsen original for a four year old boy.
Borsen looked at the mesmerized Dahrien. He was undersized, the size of a four-year-old. The suit would fit. If it made him so happy… then, why not?
“Yes, you may have that,” Borsen smiled. “Let’s have it brushed first. It’s been here for a while. You’ll need other trousers too, so look at these.” He caught the eye of a salesclerk and signaled for him to take the little suit down and have it brushed.
Dahrien looked dazed. He was unaccustomedly silent while they chose more garments, collected underwear and nightshirts, socks and handkerchiefs. He’d begun to recover his tongue when they went to see about shoes. He obviously liked the motherly lady who ran the children’s shoe department and chattered excitedly to her about the suit while she took a look at his feet.
“He’ll probably heal fast,” she said to Borsen. “Ones his age do, so I would recommend some shoes that are oversize now to accommodate the bandages and protect his feet. Then we’ll see, once he’s well, about custom fit, because he has feet like yours, wide and high arched. No readymade shoe will ever fit him properly.”
They settled on a sturdy pair of shoes a size too large.
“We’ll send them up to Borsen’s office with your other things,” the shoe department lady said kindly to Dahrien as Borsen hoisted him back onto his hip. “Come back and see me soon, lovey.”
Dahrien wanted to see the rest of Borsen’s, so he was given the grand tour. At the jewelry counter, Borsen could see the child was awe-struck by a certain ladies’ watch on a gold chain. It was smaller than a man’s watch, but would be in correct proportion for a child. Borsen surprised himself by signaling for the watch to be sent up to his office, all the while telling himself that it was insane, that he had no idea where Dahrien was going to end up, so showering him with expensive suits and watches was madness.
The confectionary department was a great success. Dahrien was vociferous about the various samples, including one he said was so good he could die happy now. The toy department yielded several clockwork toys that fascinated him and were duly sent to Borsen’s office. He was most impressed with the elevator and greatly enjoyed all the attention he got while the hairdresser trimmed his ragged locks into order and gave him another good checking over for lice.
“Couldn’t be a crawlie left on me, not after all the times my head was oiled last night,” he announced. Borsen was glad it was early and no-one was being seen yet, laughing from the other chair where he was letting the manicurist fiddle with his nails.
“You let me know if you start having more itching and we’ll take care of any that might be left, but I’m very sure you’re clean,” the hairdresser smiled. She began brushing out Dahrien’s silky black hair while he asked if she could put something that smelled nice on it, like Borsen had. She complied and he preened in the mirror.
“All right, young man, let’s get you into something other than my clothes pinned round you,” Borsen announced when they finally reached his office. Dahrien touched his stacks of clothing reverently, then dressed himself from the skin out in his new garments, finishing with the coveted suit. He was so thrilled by it all that his hands shook.
“The hat. Oh, the hat,” he breathed as Borsen handed it to him. He set it on his head and goggled at himself in the mirror, a picture of sheer delight. Borsen couldn’t even feel misgivings as he showed Dahrien how the watch worked and helped him drape the chain across his waistcoat. Seeing Dahrien so purely happy banished all reservations from his mind.
Borsen was packing Dahrien’s new things into bundles to be sent home when he felt a tug at his coat. He looked down and smiled at a miniature of himself in a gray suit and top hat, clutching a tiny walking stick.
“Thank you, Borsen,” Dahrien said solemnly. “I know some manners.”
“I know you do,” Borsen replied. “You’re very welcome. Now, would you like to go visit the Queen?”
“You do carry some weight round town, don’t you?” Dahrien marveled.
“Up you go,” Borsen laughed, lifting the boy onto his hip.