A besieging force of darkness crouched silently around the town, held at bay by the hot, quavering glare of street-lamps and lights in windows. Madyl felt the contrast vividly as she walked out onto the next street, for this one marked the edge of Byrnera’s stronghold of firelight, the street beside the docks and the sea. She paused a moment, staring out into the unbroken blackness of the sea and overcast night sky, listening to the tireless rush and crash of the unseen waves. The endless abyss of shadow made her a little nervous, but also heightened her sense of adventure, out on the road alone. Then she turned resolutely away and resumed walking, scanning the buildings along the road, reviewing the directions her fellow workers had given her.
“The fisherman Tacas keeps a window open till late in the night,” the eldest of the women had explained. “His wife makes the most wonderful fish soup, to sell to busy folk like us who need a quick supper.” Now, indeed, as Madyl spotted the house that accorded with her directions—“seventh from the corner after you come to the sea”—she saw a large window spilling cheery golden light out onto the road.
Madyl smiled, feeling very accomplished to have made her way here on her own, and in a strange town at that. This would impress the older women, who had been afraid to let a child of eleven go out alone for their supper. She approached the window and peered inside at a plain but clean kitchen, lit by a lamp on the ceiling. A round wooden table and some chairs took up the greater part of the space. Was anyone in here? Then, in a corner, she noticed someone scrubbing a pot—but it wasn’t the fisherman’s or anyone’s wife. It was a boy, perhaps a few years older than she.
“Hello?” Madyl called. “Can I buy fish soup here?”
The boy’s head jerked up as he dropped the pot with a crash. “Oh! Yes, certainly. Wasn’t expecting any more customers by this hour.” Taking a thoughtful look at Madyl, he added, “Wow, what are you doing out so late?”
“I’m a laborer for Madam Loruis, the dyer,” Madyl explained. “Some of us had to work late tonight.” She laid some coins on the windowsill and held up the steel canister that was to carry back the soup.
The boy nodded, took the money and the canister, and went over to the stove, where a large black pot still sat. “So, you haven’t been in Byrnera long, have you?” he queried, as he ladled steaming soup from the pot into the canister. “Just guessing from your accent—you’re from Sylhoa, or somewhere in the hill country, right?”
Madyl nodded. “My family are farmers. Times aren’t easy. They sent me to work here to make some more money for us.”
“Working and on your own in town. And at your age, too.” The boy sounded impressed. Then he looked intently at her and frowned concernedly. “You’re not happy, are you?”