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The Fosterling

Therese Arkenberg is a student at Carroll University in Wisconsin, though she studies only in the most extreme circumstances, and many of her works are penned in the classroom. On the rare instances where she puts down her pen, she bikes the trails in her area, reads a book from work (the local library), or attempts yet again to organize her desk and her collection of stuffed animals. She has fiction published or forthcoming from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine, and the anthologies All About Eve, Things We Are Not, Warrior Wisewoman 3, and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. Her novella, "Aqua Vitae," has been accepted by WolfSinger Publications for a 2011 release. Several of her short stories are also available at AnthologyBuilder.com.
“Please, leave my son!”
Jain Harley didn’t reply, in part because it would do no good, in part because the boy she was dragging from the corner of the shack’s single room was obviously not the son of the sobbing woman who claimed him.
She was squat and brown-skinned, he had the complexion of a porcelain doll and the promise of height in his gangly seven-year-old body. Her hair was charcoal-colored wool, his silken black. Her irises were muddy in bloodshot sclera of ivory yellow, and his were royal blue, which under the circumstances seemed like a weak cosmic joke.
“Look, ma’am,” Jain said, with a silent prayer that she wouldn’t need her gun for this, “it’s time for this boy to go home. He knows what it’s like to live among you people; maybe it’ll help when he takes the throne. You’ve had him for seven years. Now get out of my way--the king wants his son back.”
“Fuck the king!”
Jain dropped the boy’s arm and struck the woman across the bridge of her flat nose. She felt something give slightly beneath her knuckles; there was a faint crack and the woman fell back with a cry. The boy, the king’s son, stood as if paralyzed.
“Fuck him,” the woman moaned from the floor. “Fuck him if he wants to take my son. Fuck him… damn it….”
“You knew what you were getting into when they brought him to you,” Jain said evenly. “Seven years. That’s all. Princes don’t grow up in dungheaps like this--come on, kid,” she added more softly. “Let’s go.”
She tried to lead him to the door and he wouldn’t move. She pulled and he resisted. At last, suppressing a sigh of exasperation, she gathered her strength and lifted him off his feet. Taken by surprise, the boy was still until she passed through the door, where he grabbed the frame and would not let go. He was surprisingly strong--but then, most slum kids were, living as they did by muscle--and yet no kid was a match for a captain in the King’s Guard. She hauled him free--eventually. The rain of that morning had stopped, but the corrugated iron roof was still dripping, and she got an eyeful of rust-tinted water before she managed to stagger into the street, thrashing prince in her arms.
Faces dark and weathered and tall, lanky bodies appeared in doors and windows around them. She couldn’t see an expression anywhere, but all the same Jain was glad she hadn’t gone into the shantytown alone. There might not be any violence, but at least Sergeant Avery and the two privates could watch the cycles waiting in the middle of the muddy, rutted street.
She pushed the boy into her sidecar, locked it, and climbed into the saddle. The slummers didn’t move from their windows.
The kid shouted something she couldn’t hear through the thick plastic sidecar windows or over the hum of the starting motor. He started banging at the walls, his face a pale mask half obscured by the decal of the Royal Arms. She spotted motion from the corner of her eye--the woman, the foster mother, had appeared in the door of the shack.
Blood webbed her face from the busted skin between her eyes. Tears flowed down her cheeks, mixing with the blood and a trickle of bloody snot reaching her lips. Her shoulders heaved in a single great sob.
Jain gunned the cycle and started off, down the shantytown street, away from the mud and dripping blood and rusty water and brown, weathered faces, towards the cool spires of the city proper, whose name was Zenith. It was one forty-five in the afternoon.
There was still time in the day to start for the capital at New Geneva, but Jain didn’t go for it. Instead she took out a suite on the second floor of the Royal Hotel a little outside of downtown Zenith--comfortable but inexpensive, though the crown was paying the bill. Avery took the room across the hall; the two privates had rooms directly downstairs, beside the stairwell with its back exit.
She invited Avery over for a late lunch or early dinner. She ordered from room service, stuff she thought a kid would like, plus a breaded steak for the sergeant. She wasn’t hungry herself.
“What’s his name?” Avery asked, nodding across the table.
“The files said Hepastian. That’ll make him the Fourth… in time, you know, of course.”
“Yeah.”
They looked together at the kid. He was eating noodles and cheese steadily and with a fixed stare that wasn’t quite sullen. He still wore his slum clothes, sun-faded and ripped, though Jain had a change waiting for him in the back room--she had offered it, but he hadn’t answered. Overall, he didn’t look so much like a prince as a street kid at a charity kitchen.
“Hepastian?” Jain said.
The boy kept eating, not looking up.
“Do you know you’re called Hepastian?”
He stopped chewing, fixed his startlingly dark blue eyes on her, and shook his head.
“Huh.” Then Jain surprised herself by asking quietly, “What are you called?”
“Jacky.” He took another bite of noodles.
“Jacky,” Avery said.
He nodded.
“Did she not know what she was supposed to call him?” the sergeant asked Jain. “God, now we have to have him relearn what to answer to… after seven years of Jacky….”
“Can’t imagine a kid named Hepastian in those slums,” she said slowly.
“But now we’ve got a prince named Jacky.”
“That’s for New Geneva to worry about. We just need to deliver him there.” She stood up. “I’m going to smoke.”
“Open a window first.” Avery couldn’t stand the dusty-sweet scent of mereth cigarettes. Jain didn’t much like the smell, either, but the fuzzy mereth buzz would help the headache she felt growing behind her right eye.
She went to the window, opened it a crack, and watched Royal Street traffic through a wreath of ice-colored smoke. She heard the scrape of Avery’s knife against his plate. The prince ate silently.
It took about fifteen minutes to finish the cigarette. She tossed the butt in the trash can. The ashes had barely settled before the headache came despite the mereth. It was blindingly awful. Good thing she had decided to stay in Zenith; she couldn’t ride a cycle like this. Good thing, even if it did mean spending the night within a mile of the shantytown and the woman in it who said Fuck the king and her blood-webbed face.
Damn it--she knew! When they gave the kid to her, she knew it was only for seven years. She had never heard of a foster mother doing shit like this. Everybody knew about the Fosterling tradition. Why make such a damn big deal about it?
Jain stumbled to the bedroom, tore through her luggage, grasped the bottle of triptans, and rushed to the sink. She topped a glass of water and swallowed two of the thick pills. Then she grasped the sides of the sink and stood panting until she could open her eyes a crack and the light didn’t send pain knifing through her so bad she wanted to throw up.
Normally, when her head wasn’t bursting, she thought it was a superstition that anything brought on the migraines except blind chance or maybe a capricious demon. But as she had gulped the triptans she wasn’t so sure. Things like arrests, like reading criminal charges, like striking a woman in the face--even if she had committed verbal petty treason--things like dragging a kid screaming from the slums with all those poverty-drawn dark faces watching her, those things always seemed to bring the headaches on.
Headache… that was far too mild a term. It was headagony.
When her pulse stopped pulsing in her temples like a drill, she returned to the front room. Avery’s plate bore only a polish of grease, and the sergeant himself was gone--probably unwilling to wait the half-hour or so of her recovery for her return. Well, he was only across the hall if she really needed him.
Hepastian or Jacky sat in one of the overstuffed chairs before a screen showing the video of a crackling log fire. He probably hadn’t ever seen a TV before, except maybe in shop windows, but his face was expressionless. Half his noodles still lay congealing in their dish.
“Hey,” Jain said.
He didn’t answer.
She sank onto the couch across from him. “Look,” she said, “I know it’s tough now, but it won’t be that bad. You’ll like New Geneva.” Wouldn’t he? Didn’t all kids dream of being princes? “I know you miss your mom… foster mom… but listen, you have an awesome dad at the capitol. Haven’t you heard of King Amador?”
“Mom doesn’t like him,” the boy mumbled.
“Yeah. Yeah, she was angry because… she didn’t understand. But it’s okay. You belong in New Geneva. You’ll like it there. You’ll see.”
Jacky’s hand formed a fist and rubbed his eye. “I want to see Mom.”
“Not right now… sweetheart,” she tried. The endearment sounded wooden. “Not right now. But when we get to New Geneva, we’ll send her a postcard.” And a check, money to make up for the hardships of raising a child for seven years in the slums, payment for teaching the future king what he needed to know of the poorest of his people. When they got to New Geneva, things would get better. She would make up for everything with that check and a commemoration of the service done. Not a word would be said about the woman herself, her tears, her blood, her Fuck the king….
“I don’t want to go to New Geneva,” Jacky said.
“You’ll become a king, like your dad.” She wasn’t sure he would know what that meant, what his mother--foster mother--might have told him, but she said it anyway.
“I don’t want to be king. I want to go home.”
“You are going home.”
“No!”
By God, stubborn kids were exasperating. For a moment, Jain wondered what he would be like as Prince Hepastian… or what about King Hepastian IV?
Well, living in slums and shantytowns was supposed to teach fostered princes compassion and generosity. This would do the kid, and the kingdom, plenty of good in time.
Just now it was a headache.
She reminded herself the headache was worth it in the end and contemplated going to the bedroom for another triptan. She decided not to--her liver might not be able to handle it. For a non-alcoholic, that particular organ of hers was pretty hard-used on a regular basis.
It was the migraines’ fault. And the migraines were nobody’s fault, just a stupid blip of deficient brain chemicals or hormones or something. They had nothing to do with king’s heirs, or petty treason, or kids who wanted to go home.
Definitely time for another triptan. As she rose, she noticed Jacky was crying. Tears and snot streaked his face.
Damn it. She was in the King’s Guard because things like this didn’t bother her. The only important thing was the good of the kingdom.
When she got to New Geneva, she would respectfully request that she never have to do anything like this again. When she got to New Geneva…
Putting in full days on the cycles, starting early tomorrow, they should reach the capital in a little less than a week. Five or six days.
She couldn’t have more than five or six migraines in that time.
Jain realized she was still standing over the prince, who she realized she thought of as Jacky, and who was still crying.
“Hey,” she said, “let’s take a walk.”
Jacky sniffed quizzically.
“Yeah, come on. We’ll go around the block. Get some fresh air.” Mereth-tinted air wasn’t helping her any, she reasoned. “We’ll feel better afterwards.”
He didn’t answer, and when she held out her hand he didn’t take it, but he did stand up. And when she went out the door, he followed her.
Private Menderson sat at the foot of the stairs, reading a skinny, garish-covered paperback. He looked up almost guiltily as they passed him.
“We’re going for a walk,” Jain said.
He glanced at Jacky. His thoughts were plain on his face.
“It’ll be all right,” Jain said firmly. She looped her fingers around Jacky’s wrist as if to prove it.
Menderson nodded and let them go, because there wasn’t much else he could do. She pushed at the stairwell door, then pulled when she realized that was needed, and held it open for Jacky.
The evening was warm and damp with the memory of rain. Royal Street was too fine for puddles; the white pavement beneath their feet was white and nearly dry. Jacky still wore sandals that seemed to be tied with string, and as the lingering pain in her forehead was soothed away by the kiss of warm, wet air Jain realized her boots were pinching. But she was a captain in the King’s Guard, and the pain was nothing to a migraine, so she was able to ignore it.
A few cars and cycles trickled down the street, beginnings of the evening rush. Jacky stayed close to her on the sidewalk, which was oddly gratifying. She started down the block with him at her heels. She wondered if he realized they were heading in the direction of the shantytown.
“Hey,” she said. “Isn’t this better? Much better.”
Jacky looked at her with his deep blue eyes but said nothing until they reached the corner. Then he asked, “Where are we going?”
“Just around the block.”
She rounded the corner and stopped. He wasn’t following. He looked straight ahead, across the intersection, and it seemed he could see block after block running to the outskirts of Zenith. So. He knew the direction they’d been heading after all.
Now he should turn the corner, follow her, round the block and return to the Royal Hotel. There to set out tomorrow for New Geneva, for the capitol, his father, and his future throne.
In the slums there was a woman whose face must have stopped bleeding by now whom he called mother.
Jain closed her eyes a moment and savored the touch of warm, humid air on her face. She heard the slap of his sandals on pavement--the corner light must have turned. She heard his steps grow fainter and fainter and when she opened her eyes he was gone.
She waited a while longer, oddly relishing the emptiness in the pit of her stomach that felt almost as if she had been relieved of a great weight, and then she took out her phone and called Avery.
“Kid’s missing,” she reported. “He ran.”
“Goddamn-- And you just--”
“I took him out for a walk,” she said. “The fresh air helped my migraine. We reached the corner and he ran free. It’s all my fault. I’m sorry.”
He swore again. “Well, at least we know where the hell he went.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m still at the corner. I’ll come back--have my cycle ready.”
“Sure.” She heard him frown through the receiver. “Captain, Royal Street isn’t that crowded--how did you lose him?”
“He runs pretty fast,” she said. Then she hung up and started walking.
It was a little past six in the evening.
Nobody was in the shack with the corrugated iron roof. The mattresses and camp stove and three-legged table still stood in their places, the table a little unsteady with its upset fruit-crate stabilizer. The coat pegs were empty, though Jain remembered seeing a navy-clue jacket hanging on one that afternoon.
The rain started up again as they pounded on doors, pushed aside curtains, rattled rigged-together window sashes. They saw nothing, the people of the slums; they minded their own business.
“I’ll get the police,” Avery said. “They’ll comb the area--the city, shanties, everything. Let’s not tell New Geneva until tomorrow. I mean, if we find him before then, it’s no harm done.”
“Thanks,” Jain said.
She couldn’t say why she was so sure they wouldn’t find him before tomorrow. Why the Zenith police force, despite their skills and how readily they came, couldn’t find an escaped prince and his desperate mother. Foster mother.
Mother.
If they didn’t find them by tomorrow, and New Geneva heard about it, it could end all of them. Maybe only her, if she took enough of the blame. But either way, her own advancement in the Guard, maybe her entire career, was over tomorrow unless she produced the future Hepastian IV.
Whom she had let slip away.
“The king,” Avery muttered. “The king is going to be…”
Fuck the king. She didn’t say the words aloud, didn’t even think of saying them aloud, but still she thought them.
Then she stopped thinking and went to her cycle and pulled up the collar of her coat against the rain before climbing on and gunning through the muddy slum streets. She heard Avery’s and the privates’ cycles going other directions, searching elsewhere.
She combed the night with blind eyes. The rain didn’t stop and she barely saw anyone, let alone an escaped prince. His mother knew how to care for him, it seemed.
It was, of course, a disaster. An unprecedented and completely unmitigated disaster caused by her own fault, her own slip, and when they all returned to the Royal Hotel in the morning without Jacky--Hepastian--Jacky there would be hell to pay.
She waited for the migraine to come, but it never did.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 24th, 2010

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