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Tomorrow's World

Aimee Ogden is a freelance writer, science nerd, comic book geek, and the mother of twin toddlers. Her work has appeared in Star*Line and Asimov's, including her Rhysling Award-nominated poem "Morning Sickness." You can find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

The young man comes to visit Patrice every day.
The ink from his fresh-printed pamphlets stains her fingers when he presses one upon her, as he does each day. He never seems to hear her protestations that she doesn't know how to read. Every time he sees her he asks her if she's read what he's written, and every time she tartly replies that the paper has found its way into the garbage heap with all the rest. What she doesn't tell him is that before it meets that grim fate, she asks one of her sisters, one of the lettered few among them, to read the smudged words to her by the fading light of the afternoon sun, before the evening settles in and Patrice's customers come seeking her.
The young man has never solicited Patrice's time, though not for want of her asking. He's handsome enough, all yellow curls and student sensibilities--and she thinks she's not wanting for looks, with all her own teeth yet and hardly a pockmark to be seen. She'd like to make him shout over something other than revolution, for once. "Costs half the price that your upcity girls will run you," she likes to tell him, "and gets you twice the joy," and his face goes red, and he suddenly finds a reason he must go find his University brothers and flog his silly pamphlets somewhere else. He flees across the bridge back into the upcity, where the streets are wide and even and lined with trees, where the whores don't come down into the city street at least until the sun is setting.
But till then, he follows her up and down the street, even as his brothers-in-arms are shouting in taverns and plastering their foolish posters on whatever wall will yield them space. He talks and talks about a new tomorrow, a bright dawn that will paint the sky when the Magisterium's sun sets at last. His boots are covered in the filth of the street, and somehow still he can speak of the gleam of this bright new tomorrow. She loves his shit-stained boots more than she hates the promises in his voice, but she doesn't tell him what she feels about either, not really.
Sometimes it isn't Patrice's offers of business that send the young man running, but rather the shouts of Mage Guards and the sudden acrid smell of magic on the air. Patrice tastes sour bile and her inky fingers clench into a fist. The young men are always faster than the mage fire, but so far, Momma Rani's tavern and the candle-maker's shop have not been so fortunate. When they come back on the following days, the young men are apologetic, but apologies make for poor lumber.
Only one--the one Patrice's sisters call "Patrice's young man"--digs in the ashes, pulling free the till, a few copper plates and bowls, odds and ends of a vocation lost. Neither the candle maker nor Momma Rani are slavering with gratitude for these relics, for they remember all too well how it was that they came to be lost in a reliquary in the first place. But he hands them over anyway, with as much reverence as if they had belonged to a saint before being consigned to the flames.
He finds her afterward, his face and hands streaked with soot and his dirty University jacket rolled up to the elbows. All things considered, she preferred the filth. He still, somehow, has pamphlets crammed into his vest pockets, though they are crinkled and soft with sweat now. And he still, somehow, has the same old first words to offer her: "Good morning, sister, are you ready for the Revolution?"
"I'm ready for you to get your idiot head lopped off by a mage blade." She makes a brushing motion along the length of her arm, as if that will dismiss him. She knows better than that.
He catches her wrist, leaving black streaks on her olive skin. "Why must you feign such boredom over everything that matters?"
"Ain't feigning," she says. "You want to see feigning, that'll cost you."
His cheeks color, and he lets go of her wrist, but he doesn't leave. He goes on and on, about how when the Crystal Court finally falls, a government of the people will rise up to take its place. In this new utopia, he avers, all people will be free and equal, all would be cared for by the state, and no one need go hungry or sick when all the wealth in the mage vaults could be spread equally to one and all. This much doesn't sound so bad to Patrice's ears, but he never ends there. "And you can find a new vocation to suit you better," he says, and her mouth presses into a hard flat line.
"No whores in your fine new world?" she asks. "Might as well say no sex either. Doesn't sound so fine at all to me."
"You needn't sell your soul to survive--" She cuts him off with a finger jabbed into his chest.
"It's my time I sell, and nothing more. As well to tell the baker not to sell his bread, nor the candle maker to set wicks and tallow." She jabs a finger in the direction of the candle maker's ruins. "Oh--wait. I suppose this is your new world already taking shape. Well, I'm plenty happy with the old one, when it comes down to it."
He's silent. He always is when she catches him by surprise. He's told her once that a wit so quick belongs at the University. She's told him more than once that her wit isn't the only quick part she's got, and she'd like to keep the rest of her alive as well. He peels a pamphlet off the pile clutched in his hand, and she takes it when he offers. Finally he says, "Tomorrow afternoon. I wanted to tell you, tomorrow is the day that you'll be free."
"I'm not asking you for freedom," she says.
His nod is slow in coming, but come it does, and there is a flicker of light behind his eyes. It looks almost like understanding. "I see that now," he says. "Tomorrow, then, is the day you can take what you wish from your new world. You need not ask me for anything, for you already have what little I can offer."
Patrice looks down at his filthy boots.
He takes her by the wrist once more, but only for a moment. He says, "We can use every last level head against the Mages. We could use yours. Will you come? Tomorrow, will you come?"
"No," she says, but she means maybe.
By the time her last customer leaves her, she is still too full of promise to sleep. She lies awake in the hot, musty bed, and thinks of a world without sickness or hunger. She tries to decide what sort of foolish she must be come the morning.
When the light of dawn creeps over the windowpane, it brings with it a familiar acrid smell.
Patrice dresses, and she goes down into the street. The University district, across the bridge and in another world, is a smoking husk. She can see bodies in the wide and tree-lined streets. She can taste ash on the air.
She waits in the street. She walks up and down, and she talks to her sisters but does not hear what they say. She is waiting. She is waiting, but the sun hangs low and heavy in the afternoon sky. Tomorrow's new world does not seem inclined to dawn, not today, not ever.
The young men from the University do not come across the bridge, but there is other custom from the younger members of the Mage Guard, jubilant in victory. Patrice has bid one of these farewell when she notices the piece of graying paper plastered to the bottom of one of her thin-soled shoes. The ink smears her fingers when she pulls it free. She holds it in her hand for a moment, then lets the breeze carry it away. She does not watch to see where the wind takes it.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 12th, 2016

Author Comments

This story was written during a meeting of my local writing group, where the challenge was to create a character with conflicting thoughts, goals, or desires. Looking back at her now, Patrice seems to be the product of my listening to the Les Miserables soundtrack on repeat while reading Lord of the Rings as a teenager.

- Aimee Ogden
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