Flash Fiction: Off-Course (1196 words)

It had been a cold night, one of those nights that bit at fingers and ears and made Brance happy to walk slow so that the chill didn’t cut into his chest. He had been happier still to duck into his favorite tap-house, where the music was a little too loud and the dancers a little too drunk for real grace, but the room was warm and spiced and everyone was smiling.

He played cards for most the night, happily losing money. He emptied his purse on the table, bought himself a few more friends than he’d had before, and laughed with them, though very few things were funny. Then he danced – two or three wild songs – before he ordered his first round of strong drink, then sat down near the band and traded jokes with folk deeper in their cups than he was.

Someone insulted him. Taking a long drag from his mug, Brance considered punching the man for it. It had been a while since he had been in a good brawl, but it was too cold outside to be thrown out tonight. He settled for draining his mug to the last drop, smacking it down on the table, and giving the man a dirty, seventeen-adjectives-in-a-string insult in return. Brance was impressed when the man understood him and amused when he attempted to retaliate.

Brance insulted the man’s brother, grandfather, dog, ship, birthplace, and socks before finally earning a good left jab from him. Some of the other patrons muscled the man out the door. Grinning, Brance ordered another drink. The metallic taste in his mouth only lasted for a few sips.

He fell asleep in one of the back rooms. The tiredness sank in slow, and every hour he said he would turn for home, but didn’t, until the cold seemed too daunting and he curled up on a stack of old sacks.

His mug was still half-full when he found it, late in the morning. His mouth felt thick, his body heavy, and he took the whole time he was putting himself back together to decide whether he wanted to finish the drink off. Finally, hair finger-combed into something that wasn’t embarrassing, and his shirt and jacket buttoned back up to his throat, he decided he would rather have water.

Stumbling outside, he found a beautiful day, as if the sun had come out just to spite the night. Brance ran his fingers through his hair again and fought down a grin. Shooting the sun an approving look, he unbuttoned his jacket again and headed up the street.

The sun had brought out the crowds. It was close to noon, the shadows all short and stubbornly dark, and the morning’s work must have been close to finished, but the market street was still packed. The sun continued to remind him that he was thirsty, so he stopped at one of the first stalls and bought a jug of water. Drinking half of it, he took a deep breath of sweet air and started shouldering his way through. Slowly.

He stopped where there was no space to move. He backed up a step when someone needed to pass him. Lazily, he smiled. He wondered, for a long, happy moment, who might be looking for him back at the palace. Then he started whistling.

A small hand pushed against Brance’s leg on his next stride. Surprised, he looked down and stopped. The kid, on the other hand, had already tottered on. He looked too short to be walking.

“Hey, guppy,” Brance said.

The kid doddered forward without taking any notice.

Brance rocked back a step and touched him lightly on the head. He still had that fine, wispy infant’s hair.

The kid spun and Brance was sure he would knock himself over with the motion. Wide-eyed, he stared up at Brance.

“Hey,” Brance said. He raised his hands innocently, palms out, hanging the water jug off his thumb. “You bumped into me, remember?”

The kid tried to take a step back and continue to stare at the same time. It almost didn’t work. He looked down at his feet as if they had stopped working and there would be a visible reason why.

Trying not to laugh, Brance looked right and left, searching the crowd for anyone who might have the kid’s same blond hair. When that failed, he looked for anyone who was moving quickly, or just standing still and turning tight circles, the classic signs of someone who had lost something. The crowd moved in whorls and rushes, but no one seemed to be looking down for something precious. He gave it a moment. Then he took a deep breath and crouched down carefully.

The kid met his eye more easily now, still wide-eyed, but less likely to fall backward.

“I don’t supposed you speak my language,” Brance murmured.

The kid kept staring at him.

“Nah,” Brance said. The crowd was splitting around them, but he scooted closer to keep from pushing passersby too far out of their way.”Thought you looked a bit young for that. I’m going to have to guess at yours. But bear with me, I haven’t been a baby in two decades.” He paused, smiling as he realized how many people might disagree. “Never mind what my sister tells you.”

The kid blinked, assuring Brance that he didn’t even know what a sister was.

Brance’s smile widened. “Where’s your mama?” he asked.

Too quickly, the kid glanced from side to side, as if Brance might have just summoned her. He leaned too far forward, and Brance caught him by the elbow while he braced himself against Brance’s knee.

“Where?” Brance asked and the kid only looked back at him in confusion. “How about dada? Dada? You know where he is?”

The kid blinked and leaned harder against him to get a better look at his face. He reached up and touched the stubble on Brance’s chin.

“Well, guppy,” Brance said, gently pushing his hand back down. “I have to tell you, I smell nothing like the sort of person you’re supposed to be trusting. But how about you and I stick together until we can find someone who belongs to you?”

The kid reached for his chin again.

“I can interpret that as a yes,” Brance said.

Scooping the kid up, he took three quick steps to the edge of the street, giving the crowd its freedom again. There was a low wall there, on the edge of someone’s yard. Brance dropped his jug of water at the base of it, then sat and settled the kid on his knee. He faced him forward, hoping someone passing by would catch his attention before long, and leaned over him to watch as well. The kids squirmed, pushing his head back against Brance’s shoulder to look him in the face.

“Two silver ceps say your folks find you before mine find me,” Brance whispered conspiratorially.

The kid bent almost backwards, trying to get both hands on Brance’s chin.

Brance shook his head to escape, laughing hard. “You are going to owe me so much money by the time you’re two…”


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