I was proud to have made it across the desert, so proud that it didn’t occur to me that that was only the beginning. Having managed the journey with nothing more than the ragged remnants of the clothes on my back, surviving on what food and water I could manage to forage, I began life in my new country in poverty. But I had not come all this way to beg in the streets. And though I’d steal if I had to, I’d prefer not to start off as criminal.
It was strange, being back in a city of people after months alone in the desert; and it was even stranger being on the same level as them. I could look anyone here in the eye with no worry of being killed for it.
It took me longer than I like to admit to work up my nerve enough to approach anyone. I would find a sympathetic looking passerby who might give me advice, look at them, open my mouth to speak, and close it, lower my face, and hurry on. I would have spoken, eventually, but before I had quite gotten the courage, someone approached me. A cheerful looking woman stopped me and asked, “Would you be interested in some information about the evils of slavery?” She handed me a folded sheet of paper.
I thanked her, looked at the pamphlet, which called for complete abolition of slavery in Swariath, the country I’d just arrived in. I knew little about the country, or its laws or politics—information does not flow easily across the desert—so I read the pamphlet with interest.
Encouraged by my interest, the woman told me, “If you’re interested in getting involved, come to one of our meetings, every Wednesday evening right in there,” she gestured to the building we were standing in front of. “I’m Eshibelle, by the way.”
“Maybe I will,” I said. “My name’s Aerika. Do you know of… I just got here, is there any kind of… place that helps immigrants? Refugees?”
“Oh, wow, where are you from?”
“Really? I’ve never met anyone from there. That’s across the desert, right? You came all that way? Sorry, to answer your question, there’s actually an office in the Council building—that’s the government? If you’re here for political reasons, they might give you a hand, and I think anyone from Jimzel would probably qualify. You apply for citizenship there, too, which you should do right away because there’s always a wait. It’s up that street maybe a mile, then you turn left and there’s a huge building that’s obviously government. You just go in there, and go down the hall, and the door’s labeled. If you want to wait a few hours I could take you, I work as a messenger in the Council building, but my shift doesn’t start until four.”
“Thanks, but I’ll try to find it on my own.” I didn’t want to get too dependent on some stranger, or anyone, and I preferred to take care of whatever needed to be done as soon as possible. “But I will try to make your meeting.” I hadn’t meant to say that. I’d only just got to Swariath, I had no call to be trying to fix its problems. And yet, now that I was in a place where people could change things… well, why shouldn’t I be part of it? And I’d only said I’d try to go.
She grinned. “Great! And good luck.”
The office was not hard to find, and the people in it were surprisingly efficient. They were shocked to hear I was from Jimzel, and agreed that being from there, I would automatically qualify as a refugee. After all, the punishment for leaving is death, if you’re caught, and if you aren’t killed by the desert first. They gave me some forms to fill out to apply for citizenship, a sum of money to live on for a week or two, until I got a job, and a list of available housing and possible job opportunities.
Renting a small hovel was easy. Finding a job was not. I had no references and was not good with people. I spent a week desperately trying to even get an interview, and another two weeks desperately trying to convince people to hire me. I ran through the entire list of possibilities I’d been given with no success.
I did go to the meeting of abolitionists. Most of the people there were as friendly as Eshibelle, which made me feel a bit out of place, but was nice. It seemed that their efforts mainly consisted of handing out flyers, and occasionally fundraising in an effort to free slaves individually. Even so, they were considered a radical group, as most of Swariath was still debating over whether slavery was great for everyone involved or just a necessary evil.
“Well, they haven’t even got that far in Jimzel.”
“Do they have slavery there?” someone asked. “We were trying to put together a list of countries that don’t a few weeks ago, and we couldn’t remember.”
“It’s… different. The law doesn’t provide for slavery, but it also doesn’t protect about a third of the population. Have you tried talking to members of the Council?”
As I’d hoped, they took off on my subject change, complaining about various politicians. When I got the chance, I asked if any of them knew of job openings. I got a few suggestions that didn’t seem promising, and then one of them said to another, “Isn’t your old boss getting desperate?”
The woman who’d been addressed said to me, “Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to work for him!”
“Yes I would. Really, I’ll take any job I can get.”
“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” But she wrote down the information for me.
I went the next day to drop off a letter offering my services. The office was in a large building located a few blocks from the Council building. I had to explain my mission to a doorman to get into the building. “Good luck,” he told me. “You’ll need it. Oh, you might get the job easy enough, but no one lasts more than a few days. Fiorest must’ve gone through a dozen assistants in just the last month.”
The office was on the second floor, very small, and occupied solely by a man concentrating furiously on a stack of papers and scribbling feverishly. “You look like you need help,” I suggested.
He didn’t look up. “These idiots…” scribble “Are incapable…” scribble scribble “Of hard work!”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’d like to apply for a job.”
At that, he did look up. “Do you have time to be interviewed now?”
I agreed, of course, and he gestured for me to take a seat on the only other chair in the room. I had to move some papers before sitting down. He asked me the basics—my name, background, any previous experience. Like everyone else I’d met in Swariath, he was surprised that I was from Jimzel. “Why did you leave?” he asked.
“Personal reasons,” I answered, too brusquely.
“And why come here?”
“I walked in a straight line until the desert ended, and this is where I ended up.” Not the greatest answer, but it was the truth.
“I work for the government, albeit indirectly, and deal with sensitive information. How can I know you won’t pass it along to your former country?”
“Because you can’t throw a message in a bottle over sand and expect it to go anywhere.”
A corner of Fiorest’s mouth quirked upwards. “No, but you could hand it to a messenger.”
“You’d have more luck putting it in a bottle. No one crosses the desert.”
“Not an experience I’d chose to repeat.”
“Do you regret coming here, then?”
He changed his line of questioning. “I often have to deal with urgent projects that require working late into the night and sometimes through it. Many of my former assistants have been unable to deal with the workload. Do you think that would cause any problems for you?”
He asked me to demonstrate how fast I could take dictation, then asked what other skills I had.
I tried to think which of my skills were applicable; I didn’t want to talk about how well I picked locks, or ran from assassins, or.... “I’m very organized, hardworking, and I learn quickly.” That sounded rather pathetic, I thought.
Fiorest regarded me carefully. “Have you ever killed anyone?”
I was surprised at the question, and not sure how to answer it. “Do you always ask that when you interview people?”
“No. Usually I already know the answer.”
“And you don’t with me?”
“I think I do, now. It’s just a different answer than most people I interview would give.” I thought that I’d blown the whole thing for sure, but he continued with the interview. “What one word would you say describes you?”
I thought for a moment, though not long enough, because I answered honestly, “Ruthless.”
Fiorest raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I do whatever I have to.”
“Well, thank you very much for your time, Aerika,” Fiorest reached to shake my hand, and suddenly he was holding a knife at my throat.
I was shocked, and terrified. I hadn’t been expecting it, now, here. Still, I jerked away, ducked under his arm, grabbed the knife, and had it as his throat before he could even register what was happening. “Who hired you?” I demanded frantically. “How did you… the whole thing was a trap? How did you set it up?”
He was as shocked as I had been an instant before, but stayed cool under pressure. “No one hired me. I wasn’t trying to kill you, it was part of the interview, to see how you’d react.”
I stared at him, my mind torn between disbelief and knowledge that I had irrevocably failed the interview. I thought it over. Everyone who wanted me dead, or had any reason to want me dead, or thought it would be good sport to have me killed, was on the other side of the desert. And it was inconceivable that he’d been hired by someone in Jimzel, that the whole thing, starting from the suggestion by one of the abolitionists, was a trap. So he had to be telling the truth, I tried to assure myself.
I lowered the knife, then, hesitantly, handed it back to Fiorest. He put it in a drawer, and I got up to leave.
“Do you still want the job?”
“You mean you’ll hire me?”
“You’re perfect for it, if you can handle the work. Can you start right away?”
He showed me the papers he’d been working on earlier. “We need to cross-reference these, and find….”