This is a story I'm still quite fond of and will finish one day as soon as I can figure out what's wrong with the storyline I have so far.
He saw her first when he was thirteen. As Jehar was his witness, if he’d known what it would cost, he would never have looked.
Nikki knocked on the door of the Nepara house.
He didn’t know it was the Nepara house. To him, he was just performing one of the many tasks that Gerring had set for him today. He clutched the precious bag of spice tight, mindful of Gerring’s warning that any lost bags would be taken out of his hide.
The door swung open and a skinny man of middle-age scowled at him. “What is it?”
Nikki held up the bag for the man’s inspection. “Spice deliv’ry, sir.”
“You came to the wrong door. This is the tradesman’s entrance.”
Nikki didn’t see the difference. He looked at the man and grinned.
The man sighed and beckoned him in. “Well, come on, then.”
The boy stepped inside and gawked at the smooth colorful tiles on the floor under his bare feet.
“You got yellow hair. You a Camdian?”
The man looked at him with narrow gaze, as if to be found with any other birthplace than Camdia was suspicious.
“Don’t know, sir. I was found on a doorstep,” Nikki said sunnily.
The man’s lips twisted up as if he had tasted something unpleasant.
“Oh. Don’t touch anything. Cook’s down the hall and to your left.”
Since the man didn’t seem disposed to show him in person, Nikki pattered down the hall. He admired the tiles in the floor and the smooth walls on either side.
Lowertown didn’t rise to anything like this. Gerring’s shop consisted of rough wood and even more rough plaster.
Nikki reached a place where the hall was bisected by another hallway and paused. He now had three choices for direction and found he’d forgotten which way the man had said to go. Sweat popped out on his brow. He had to deliver that spice! If he didn’t, Gerring would leave welts the size of cakes on his back.
At last, he chose a direction. The new direction took him to a large room even more splendid than the hall. The ceiling rose way above his head and ended in a colored glass dome that let in the sunlight. The tiles on the floor gleamed with a high, smooth sheen. Plants and statuary and elaborately carved tables decorated the room. At the other end, a set of stairs with granite risers and gold-encrusted wooden rails and balusters made a graceful spiral to a second floor balcony that overlooked the open area.
Nikki’s mouth fell open and he stared.
A girl leaned over the railing of the second floor balcony and looked down at him with a friendly smile. She wore something that shimmered in the sun pouring through the dome above, and her eyes were a deep chocolate.
Nikki’s lips trembled into a little smile.
“Wait, I’ll come down,” the girl said.
She moved to the stairs and descended. Her dress did not allow for quick movement, and she looked like the most graceful creature alive to Nikki as she moved down the stairs and across the floor to the doorway where he hovered.
“My name is Tasha. What’s yours?” She held out her hand.
The girl paused and turned. Nikki lifted his gaze to the second floor balcony to see a woman staring down at them, a scandalized look on her face. The woman rushed down the stairs.
“What is it, Revi?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
The woman seized her by the arm. “What do you think you’re doing? You cannot talk to this creature!” Her look moved over Nikki with a fine contempt. “He’s filthy and he’s Lowertown!”
That look penetrated Nikki’s consciousness like the thrust of a knife. He peered down at himself in puzzlement. He hadn’t considered himself to be dirty before this, and what did his coming from Lowertown have to do with anything?
“Go away, creature, you don’t belong here!” the woman said, and hustled the protesting girl away, leaving Nikki to stare after them. The girl gave him one flashing glance over her shoulder before she was dragged away.
Waves of mortification passed over Nikki’s being. He’d never been made to feel inferior before---or to be more accurate, he’d never noticed his lack before this.
Nikki turned and, with slow steps, made his way back the way he had come, his smile gone. He eventually found the cook and delivered the package of spice.
The cook showed him out the servants’ door; he’d come in the tradesman’s entrance. Another flick of the lash on his lacerated feelings.
He ran all the way back to Lowertown like all the demons of the Seven Hells were after him.
He flung himself into the spice shop and pounded up the stairs to his room over the back of the shop, glad that Gerring was occupied and did no more than frown at him.
Nikki threw himself across his pallet and buried his burning eyes in his arm, the vision of the house and the young girl shining in his brain.
Presently, he crept out of his room and entered Gerring’s room. The expensive, full-length mirror stood against the far wall. Nikki tread lightly as a cat. If Gerring caught him in here, he would probably break something on Nikki’s body.
The mirror captured the image of a slim boy with long blond hair and scruffy clothes. Nikki took a long look at his reflection. He thought he was not that bad to look upon; his wits had kept him nourished and healthy; not like some in Lowertown. Tanned, well-formed limbs gleamed through rents in the short trousers and stuck out of the sleeves of his shirt a good six inches or more. The shirt had once been blue but had faded to a dingy gray. And he was dirty. How was he supposed to keep clean when everything he touched broadcast dirt? Filth and Lowertown seemed to go together.
He’s filthy and he’s Lowertown.
The expression on the woman, Revi’s, face jabbed him again.
Well, he couldn’t do anything about being from Lowertown, but he could do something about being clean.
Determined, Nikki found the washbasin, a cloth, and a piece of lye soap. He didn’t have the patience to wait for water to heat so he pumped it cold.
Gerring found him washing and shivering in the cold water and stared.
“What are you doing?”
Nikki looked up, water running and dripping from his face and arms. “I’m cleaning up.”
“At this hour of the day?” Gerring said with an incredulous note in his voice. “What for?”
Nikki dropped his head and attacked a smear of dirt on his leg. “I was dirty,” he muttered.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Nikki didn’t know how to answer him. An hour ago, it wouldn’t have had anything to do with anything. But that had been an hour ago and an eternity past.
“Oh, for the love of Jehar, get yourself back in the shop and clean out those shelves like I told you to this morning.”
Nikki almost welcomed the pain of Gerring’s cuff on the ear.
Revi pulled her hand under the trickling water pipe and scrubbed so hard with the scented soap that Tasha squealed with pain.
“And so it should hurt!” Revi said. “What were you thinking? Touching a boy like that?”
“I didn’t touch him!” Tasha protested. “What do you mean, ‘a boy like that?’ He was just a boy.”
Revi stopped scrubbing and stared at her. “He was Lowertown, my lady, and don’t you forget that. Uppertown and Lowertown don’t mix. What your mother would have said if she were still alive, I shudder to contemplate!”
“She wouldn’t have gone on about it,” Tasha muttered mulishly.
Revi pinched her arm.
“OW!” Tasha yelled.
“There’s more where that came from if I see you talking below your station again,” Revi promised.
Tasha stood, tears of pain in her eyes, as Revi scrubbed her hand to the woman’s satisfaction. When Revi let go, Tasha snatched back the offending member and nursed it against her dress as she nursed her indignation. The skin shone red and stank of the scented soap.
“Now get yourself down to your lessons and keep yourself out of trouble.”
Tasha trudged down the stairs, surprise and an overwhelming sense of injustice struggling inside her. She hadn’t done anything wrong. How could Revi have been so unfair? The boy had been in her house. Her father and mother would not have been rude to him. Why should Revi be that way?
A flash of blond hair and dark blue eyes rose in her memory. His coloring had been unusual and pleasing to the eye. Surely Revi could see that? None of her family or friends had that coloring. His hair had looked like captured sunshine.
Tasha hugged the memory of the boy's smile as she listened to her tutor drone on about politics and the history of the Fifty Families in Camdia.