License Master Alaaffi
has enjoyed his vacation to Tifijimi,
but he is glad to get back home.
The familiar streets of Affayasilith
wrap around him like a welcoming blanket.
The License Master is fair but stern.
He follows the rules with a clear conscience,
for rules are what keep the Empire alive.
He is not moved by pleas or bribes
from his cool professional bearing,
but neither is he cruel;
there is no need to be rude
while conducting the Empire's business.
It does not grieve him to part couples
who are unsuited to marriage,
no matter how much fuss
their hearts make beyond reach of their heads.
He loses no sleep over shopkeepers or restaurateurs
who cannot justify their applications for new services.
The seal comes down with strict finality:
Yet there is one thing he has always done
that he now finds it harder and harder to do.
It is his duty to register those citizens
who are handicapped and unable to support themselves.
He has never given it any thought
but now he finds that he cannot unthink it.
There are children born blind or deaf,
workers crippled by dangerous jobs,
people of all walks damaged by accidents.
The Empire cannot make countless accommodations
for all different handicaps and so it sets people aside,
provided for so that they need not live in squalor.
Now when Alaaffi looks at them
he cannot help but recall Warsailor Brelig,
his short body marred by scars from many sea monsters,
left arm half chewed away and tipped with a gleaming sickle.
Brelig had not needed two whole arms
to battle a deathfin on the pitching deck of the Wavebiter.
Despite his handicap -- because of it, even,
his sickle slashing through the deathfin's cold, glaring eye --
Brelig had saved Alaaffi along with everyone else on board.
Alaaffi wishes that he could forget --
it would make his job so much easier --
but he cannot.
The memory is in him
as deep as a fishhook,
swallowed into the soft meat of his innards,
beyond all hope of ever disgorging it.
He stares down at the paperwork before him,
pages white as a ship's sails,
and those memories dig at tender places inside of him.
On the other side of the elegantly carved desk,
the construction worker fidgets with his new crutch,
not yet used to his missing foot.
The man is young and strong aside from that.
Alaaffi recalls his tour of the great drydock in Tifijimi
where shipwrights swarmed over the skeleton of a ramship.
The chief designer had gone about in a sling-chair,
having lost both legs to a giant turtle,
as workers scurried to obey her barked orders.
"I should simply seal this," he mutters,
tapping a pen against the paper.
"I should definitely not be telling you about the loophole
exempting cripples from public support
if they can prove ability to support themselves."
He does not look at the construction worker,
hiding behind the pale curtain of his hair
so that he need not meet the eyes
of the man whose life he is about to upend.
"You might have some luck finding work in another town.
Then again, maybe not," Alaaffi says.
"Still, I see you've some vacation time left --
your former employer owes you for that."
He fills out a travel license with quick strokes;
no point going through all the hassle
of calculating a cash settlement
when the original obligation could still be met.
He makes a few quick notes on a brochure for Tifijimi,
circling the Wavebiter's schedule and the drydock tour.
Then he pushes the paperwork across the desk.
The construction worker leans forward
but does not touch anything.
"Well? What are you loafing about for?"
the License Master says.
"Get out of my office; you have things to do.
Good day, Citizen."
The young man snatches up the bundle
and hobbles away.
Alaaffi rubs at the fading ache in his belly,
now that no one is there to see him do it,
and wonders if this job is giving him an ulcer.