As always, this is a snippet. All rights remain with me, you may freely share the post, but the content is mine. This is a rough draft. There will be errors, typos, and other issues. There may be significant changes before publication.
Jem picked up the small case which held several of the little lizards and followed Triegh out into the corridors. The customs officer, his attention already elsewhere, waved absently and headed further out into docking. Another ship, no doubt. Jem headed toward the station proper. Docking was cold, and even though sterile, always managed to look dingy and worn.
Pushing through the swinging doors into the station was always an experience. The wristband he wore allowed him free access since he was cleared through customs, and there were no guards here. Beyond the doors, it was warm, well-lit, and there were people. Jem took a deep breath and headed for Mahoney’s.
Nothing wrong with people. It wasn’t that he hated all people, not like Walter had. It was just that… there were so many of them. Altressa was the most populous station on his route, and as he wove through the crowds, Jem slowly realized that this was busier than it had been two seasons ago on the last trip through here.
He paid attention to the mood of the crowd in the corridor, slowly down and scanning with his eyes, not moving his head. To move his head would make him look like a tourist, a gawker, and that would mean vulnerable to those who were watching. The people seemed to be happy, in a holiday mood. Couples strolled arm in arm. There was a family, the littlest child up on her father’s shoulders, the whole group laughing.
Jem felt his shoulders tense and he quickened his steps a little. Mahoney’s wasn’t far from the docks, and it was never full. He’d be there soon enough.
Chapter 3: Norms and Procedures
Mahoney’s Fine Jewels and Gifts was a familiar place. Jem slipped through the door, slim brushed aluminum case in hand, without a backward glance at the crowded corridor he’d just come from. He felt some of the tension ease as he looked across the small, quiet shop. There was a customer at the counter, looking down at what old Abe was showing him. He didn’t look around when the bell tinkled for Jem’s entrance.
Abraham Mahoney looked up and met Jem’s eyes. He nodded without breaking rhythm in the sales patter, and Jem wandered over to look into the display cases. He’d talk when Abe was ready.
Abe kept this little shop near the docks and away from the main marketplace on the station, but there was always one, never more than three, customers inside. Jem had wondered at that, his first trip here. When Walter had turned into the small doorway with the subdued sign, he’d hung back, confused. It wasn’t until perhaps the second or third trip that he had learned the sign was wood, handmade, and that the wares Mahoney’s offered were exponentially more highly priced and valuable than those in the common market. Only the richest shopped here, and if you didn’t know about Mahoney’s, you couldn’t afford it.
“Jem! Dahling…” Abe swooped down on him and airkissed both cheeks. Jem hoped his blush didn’t show. “Let me look at you…”
Jem patiently stood still, letting Abe sweep him from head to toes and back again with bright black eyes. He knew he was smiling, because he was making the effort. The man made him jumpy, but he trusted Walter’s take on him. ‘It’s an act, boy. There’s no harm in it, it makes his clientele happy, and he wears it like a second skin. He’d no sooner hurt you than cut off his own hand.’ That would have been the second trip, when Jem had hesitantly asked to not go into the shop. Walter had looked sharply at him.
Abe’s voice broke the memory. “You are all grown up, a young man of means. Is Walter…?”
Jem shook his head mutely, feeling the smile fall off his face. Abe’s face shattered into grief.
Jem allowed himself to be pulled into the backroom, which was surprisingly well-decorated. “Sit, sit…” Abe waved at the low table.
He disappeared for a long few minutes, leaving Jem feeling uncomfortable and fidgety. Abe came back, his face a little damp like it had just been washed. He was carrying a tray with a tea set.
“I don’t know if you drink tea?”
Jem nodded. He was very interested that the affected high note of Abe’s voice had gone away, leaving a pleasant even tenor. Jem had been taught to drink and enjoy many things. It was part of the protocol of negotiation on some worlds.
“What happened?” Abe asked after he’d poured out two cups.
“Old age, sir.” Jem looked into the golden liquid. Green tea, or some herbal brew. He sipped at it, finding it light and citrusy. “He knew it was coming, spent the last season we were together getting everything just so, and then…”
Jem hadn’t told this part of the story to anyone but Peter, and he took a deep breath. “He just didn’t wake up one morning.”
Abe looked into his eyes for a long moment, his face solemn. “But he had you, the son of his heart, with him at the end.”
“I, er…” Jem knew he was blushing, now.
“Pshaw.” Abe had a little of his accent back. “I know what I saw. Walter was not a man to take a young lover, and you were more to him than simply an apprentice. He was proud of you, boyo.”
Jem choked. He’d certainly thought that a toy was what Walter wanted, when the big man had plucked him from the gutter. It had been the one thing Jem hadn’t tried yet, but he knew it was that, or death. Walter had looked horrified and had roared ‘stop thinking with your pecker, lad! Life is about more than sex.’ And the yelling had oddly reassured Jem, who correctly read it as genuine anger, but not directed at himself. Walter had stomped out of the shipping bay with a curt command to stay put. He’d returned a little later with bloodied knuckles, and then they had lifted off planet to the safety of outer space and Jem had relaxed for the first time he could remember.
“Thank you.” He said now, whether to Abe or Walter he wasn’t sure.
“I’ll miss him.” Abe put his cup down. Jem took this as a signal that the personal moment was past. Time for business.
“Will you be continuing your trading route?” Abe asked, looking for the first time at the silvery case beside Jem.
“I shall. I promised him I would continue with no changes in schedule for no less than two seasons, but after that I am free to do as I please.”
“Wise, wise. And what have you brought me?” Abe looked like a child with a gift as he reached for the case Jem was turning toward him.
“Peter, Walter’s brother, thought you might find these worth your time.” Peter hadn’t specifically mentioned Abe, but Abe was Altressa’s arbiter of fashion. If he liked the tiny lizards, then they would sell and sell well.
Jem keyed the stasis case and let the lizard free. It was a shimmering cobalt blue at the nose, shading back to a sea-green at the tail. With a wingspan not wider than the palm of his hand, and bright gold eyes, it looked as though it was made from metals and gems. But it was alive, and it ran to his fingertips as he stretched an arm out to Abe. Abe put out a finger and the lizard cocked his head, peering nearsightedly at the new thing in his sight.
“They can be harnessed and worn as brooches or shoulder pets.” The lizard stepped daintily to Abe’s hand and wrapped itself around his finger with a contented sigh.
“What do they eat? Do they bite?”
“They are engineered to eat insects or tiny bits of meat. They will only void in a specific place, and only once a day. They have no teeth large enough to bite – they don’t chew their food, but swallow it whole and they are very sleepy while it digests. Perfect for a pet.”
Abe nodded, holding his finger up straight and inspecting the tiny creature. “So beautiful, and alive! Boyo, this is the thing…” He stopped speaking and almost went cross-eyed.
Jem chuckled, he couldn’t help it. He’d had the same reaction to the lizard’s little trick. “They, ah, purr…”
Abe nodded. “Couldn’t have warned me, could you?”
Jem shook his head and presumed the sale. “Will you warn your customers?”
Abe tipped his head back and laughed so loudly that Jem was afraid he’d frighten the little lizard. “Here, and I was going to worry about you, trying to make it on your own without the old man watching over you.”
Abe wiggled his finger and the lizard arched his back and spread out his wings. “Jem.”
Now he had Jem’s full attention. He didn’t think the other man had ever used his name before.
“I will buy this lizard. With one condition.”