“Payment” by Sander Moffitt, South Eugene High School
First Place, High School Level, 2019
By Sander Moffitt
South Eugene High School
She ran the comb through her beard one last time, making sure every hair was in place. Any little thing could tip off the border control and then she’d be caught. While there was a bounty out for Ghen Sarinth, the officers wouldn’t bat an eye at Matyán the manni farmer.
Ghen settled a broadbrim hat low on her brow and tucked the hand mirror back into the folds of her robe. The exterior city was too quiet for her liking. She craved the constant noise and bustling streets of the capital. The outercountry made her feel too easily watched, too trapped in the confines of her human skin.
The wagon bucked around her, its wares falling to the rough cobbled streets. An intricately carved timepiece fell into her lap. She inspected it with a smuggler’s eye. Wrought from the living wood of the desertlands and no doubt etched by one of the desert tribes, it was probably worth more than she was. The criminal in her chest pulled, urging her to slip it away into a pocket, but she bit her cheek and returned it to its wrappings. She had a job to do.
Stone spires came into view as the trade caravan neared the capital. The driver jabbered on in a language Ghen barely knew, occasionally looking back to verify that she was still there to pay him at the end of the journey. She smirked.
Ghen strapped her coat and slid from the cart just before it pulled up at the border. As he noticed her skipping out on him, the driver jumped out and started toward her, shouting a few of the words Ghen did know. A smile slipped onto her face as she started to run, the air coming alive around her. Ghen only really felt like herself in a chase.
She outpaced the man easily, slipping into the line to passport control. Her heart sang in her chest as she tried to quiet the flush in her cheeks. It was good to be alive.
The people around didn’t pay her any mind. Ghen rolled her shoulders back, scanning the crowd for any potential problems. She was for the most part unknown—a lower class criminal—and that was for the best. A well-known smuggler was a bad smuggler. The only reason she was on government lists at all was a tiny incident from her last job. It wouldn’t happen again.
“Ay!” The man behind her barked, elbowing her. “Move on, then!”
Ghen turned to give him a look, towering above the guy in her boot lifts. He looked just the type to mess with a poor farmer—expensive waistcoat, gloves, snobbish mustache. She snorted and pretended to stumble, tripping into his feet.
“Hey!” he shouted, shoving her away.
“Sorry,” Ghen said, backing away.
“Bakeh farmers,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. She ignored the insult and moved forward.
When she reached the front of the line, she slapped her passport down at the desk. The attendant took it, giving her a skeptical look, then glanced back down to the picture.
“Matyán Polonor?” he asked.
“Ia,” Ghen affirmed, nudging her voice low.
The attendant squinted at the picture one more time, then slammed the stamp down on her travel page and handed it back. “Prokh.” Next.
Ghen grabbed the passport and stuffed it back in her bag. Entering Khaille wasn’t difficult—
The weapons search was a necessity for entrance and exit—Khaille was supposed to be a weapon-free capital. Ghen shifted, subtly glancing back to see the rude man from earlier passing into the room behind her.
“Halukh brasii,” a young officer said, his voice bored. Raise your arms. Ghen obliged, watching the rude man begin his search as well. Her own examiner’s hands moved dangerously close to where her knives were hidden, bound to her chest under layers of fabric. Hurry, she willed the other inspector. Try his shoe.
“A-ha!” The other officer called out, extracting a blade from the man’s boot. The rude man’s eyes widened. Ghen’s officer nodded her on and strode over to help.
“S’not mine,” the man sputtered. “I don’t know—” His eyes locked on Ghen.
“Him!” The man cried, flailing at her. “He planted it on me!” The officers ignored him, speaking fast into their comms.
Ghen gathered her things, stretched, and strode into Khaille.
She took a cavva at one of the corner shops before starting toward the drop-off point. The black syrupy drink was, in her eyes, one of the few redeeming things about the city. Khaille was not a kind place—run by a government in the pockets of traffickers—but it had a large black market and enough people that Ghen felt the cover.
The capital breathed, and Ghen felt herself breathing with it. People bustled everywhere, hurrying from one place to another, some in lavish suits, others in rags. Smells from spiced meats to sweet canlés hung in the air. Vendors marketed goods at every light, hawking wares in all languages of the providences.
She caught sight of the pin alley where she’d arranged to pick up the goods. Ghen had no idea what she would be transporting, only that her client, Hirren, thought it might be difficult. Ghen had scoffed at the idea, but accepted the extra pay. If it turned out to be hard, she’d be even. More likely, if it turned out that Hirren had underestimated her, she’d be right rich.
Ghen slipped into the alley—more of a crack between buildings—and settled in to wait, taking a long drag of cavva.
A young woman hurried what seemed to be her child into the alley a few minutes later. They looked to be Cio’yan, with pale skin and dirty golden hair. The mother hesitated, giving Ghen a once-over, then moved past, pulling the young boy close. Ghen felt a pang in her chest. Khaille these days was notorious for two things: its burgeoning black market and its youth policy.
A few years back, before Ghen had been making regular runs to the capital, they’d had a plague outbreak that had left hundreds of young children orphaned. The traffickers had seized control of the Khai government, confining the youth to work camps and prohibiting them from leaving the capital. Nowadays, it was nearly impossible to travel with children. Someone must have pulled a border trap on the woman—let her in but not out, as was commonly done with foreigners. In a week or two they’d hunt her down claiming neglect for her child and they’d both become wards of the state.
Ghen shook her head and blinked. There was nothing she could do about the capital’s tyranny. She could not love or hate Khaille. She worked it, and that was that.
It was a few minutes before a shadow sporting a red hat stepped into the alley. Ghen slipped a knife from her chest, flicking the blade open. She didn’t want trouble, but she’d be a fool not to expect it.
The man stepped forward, thin alley-crack light catching on his gray merchant’s robes.
He seemed to be concealing something behind him. Ghen thought she saw movement in the heavy fabric and frowned. If Hirren was having her bring him a pet, she would earn that extra pay. Getting anything alive out of Khaille was next to impossible.
The merchant beckoned and Ghen strode closer.
He shoved the wriggling bundle of fabric forward and bolted. Ghen watched him go, then glanced down at the thing he’d left. What could it be if it made a gang man run like that? She bent down and lifted a corner of fabric, grip tight on her switchknife.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ghen muttered. “Hirren, if we survive this, I’m going to make you pay house and home.”
She lifted the baby from the cloth and settled it onto her hip.
Ghen had overheard that Hirren had been considering raising a kid, but to have her smuggle it— and out of Khaille, no less—she shook her head. No. It was too dangerous, both for the baby and for her. If they were caught—no, when they were caught—best-case scenario, they’d both become property of the government. No. She couldn’t do it.
The woman and her starving child flashed through Ghen’s eyes. Their hollow cheeks and dying eyes. She looked down to the baby. Wherever the merchant had found it, it seemed to be in decent shape. She squinched up her face. This was a bad idea. This was such a bad idea.
The baby looked up at her with massive eyes. Alive eyes.
“Bakeh,” Ghen swore.
Before she could change her mind, she gathered it up in her arms. She’d need a room, for starters, and a new plan, because she had no way of hiding this thing in her Matyán outfit. She needed new papers. New costume. Some way of concealing the baby. And she had a twenty-four-hour legal stay in Khaille to figure out how to do it.
She booked a room at one of Khaille’s corner motels and settled the baby onto the dust-coated bed. It gurgled. Ghen sighed.
She spread drafting paper onto the lopsided desk. This would take a whole lot of luck to pull off. Ghen cracked her knuckles and got to work.
Seven hours and many cups of cavva later, she had a plan.
“Okay, baby,” Ghen muttered to the infant. “You’re going to have to work with me today.”
The little girl didn’t answer, just stared up at Ghen with those big, lively eyes. Ghen shook her head one last time before starting her prep. This was a terrible idea.
When they were close to the border station, she slipped into the bathroom. It had been a reach to try to find contacts who were in Khaille and had materials she could use, but she’d managed to scrounge up a few.
She joined the exiting lines. People mulled and muttered around her. To them, this was just a hindrance. But to Ghen, it was a game. Her nerves had come alive the second her cargo was stowed and they wouldn’t quiet until long after she’d passed the border.
“Prokh?” The passport checker asked, and Ghen hobbled forward, leaning hard on her cane. She extended her passport with a quivering hand and the officer snatched it. “Erelente Ruzicka?”
“Ia,” Ghen murmured, laying a softness to her voice.
He turned the document over. “Ru t’ya ein etrro calkh.” You have no entrance stamp. Ghen closed her eyes. She must’ve forgotten it in her haste to create the new fake.
“An Khai. An jii’ya flon,” she managed, thinking fast. I’m Khai. I’ve never left. She held her breath.
The man gave her a skeptical look. He said something she didn’t understand.
“An re—” she struggled to remember the word for hermit. “Drejar’ya brasii.” Am missing arm. Indeed, to him it would appear she had only one arm. Ghen shifted under her heavy robes and propped the baby higher up on her hip. One arm was fully occupied holding the girl close to her side, completely wrapped and concealed beneath cheesecloth and fabric. From the outside, she appeared small and lumpy, single-armed, and, most important, baby-less.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ghen saw one of the guards stationed along the walls take a step closer. She forced herself to remain still. There was no way he could know.
Her passport checker gave her one last long look. Ghen brought willingness to her eyes. Please, she thought.
He brought the stamp down hard on her document and shoved it back. “Prokh?”
Relief sagged through Ghen’s frame and she hurried to return the papers to her cloak. She just had to make it through the rest of the searches.
Ghen shuffled through to the next room, forcing herself to move as slowly as she could bear.
Drug detector machines were next. With her normal goods, this would be the hardest part of the process. She wished she could relax and enjoy the guaranteed lack of beep. Instead, she held the baby tight to her side, its heartbeat fusing into her own.
The wall guard from the previous room stepped in. His hand rested over the pistol at his waist.
Ghen forced herself to take a breath. He had no way of knowing. This was routine. She stepped forward into the detector, staring straight ahead. An officer motioned her out to wait for the all-clear beep.
The baby shifted at her side.
Ghen’s heart clenched.
Please, no, you stupid baby, she prayed. A sniffle came from her side. She shifted, trying to soothe the little girl. Just a few more seconds. Come on.
The drug officer frowned, scanning the crowd for the infant. Ghen gritted her teeth, trying desperately to shut the damn thing up. The man’s gaze settled on her squirming side and his eyes widened.
The wall guard stepped forward, a hard look settling onto his face.
“Abri’ni!” Ghen trilled, backing up. Good-bye. She eyed the door to the next room—if she could block it off after passing through somehow, she could stall things enough to get out before enough people realized what was happening.
Beep, the machine said. All clear.
The noise startled Ghen and she tripped, her hood falling back. The confusion in the officer’s face disappeared, replaced by rage.
“Ib’res Ghen Sarinth!”
She winced. Time to leave.
Ghen tightened her grip around the baby and took off for the next room. She ripped open the door with a groan, slamming it closed behind her.
She needed something to block the door. A long object, ideally metal. Her eyes locked on the stanchions that formed the room’s waiting lines and she shoved one through the handle, cutting off the door access.
Ghen turned, breathing hard, to face a room of absolutely befuddled travelers and two frozen officers. The weapons check station.
“I’ll make this easier,” Ghen said, drawing her knives.
The officers were on her in a flash. She spun, her blade hitting one of their shoulders. He let out a howl. The other slammed something into her arm and she felt blood raise to her skin. BANG. The blocked door groaned. Heat flared in her vision and she slashed forward, catching the second guard across the cheek. He stumbled back.
The door burst open, the wall guard barging through.
She could hear the footsteps building behind her, pounding through her veins like her own heartbeat. She flung open the door to the next passport check, hurdling over line barriers and charging past the officer stations. Her lungs burned and she gasped, taking in more air. It tasted like life. Ghen felt a smile split her face.
“Ayehta!” The wall guard roared behind her, but Ghen was stopping for nothing short of a million cej. She burst through the final door and into the outercountry, relishing the burst of cold wind on her face. She took a second to check on the baby. The girl seemed more than okay—she was burbling, squirming with delight. Ghen ran down the street with a smirk. Hirren might just raise a criminal.
“Ghen Sarinth! Ayehta!”
She turned. The wall guard sprinted after her, gun in hand. Ghen’s heart clenched and she doubled down, feet pounding into the rough streets.
He gained on her. She was fast, but he was faster. She wasn’t going to make it. But she was so close.
Ghen cut a sharp corner and the wagon from earlier came into view, Desertland Goods painted across its side. She shook her head. She couldn’t.
She looked back. The guard wasn’t on the street yet but in a matter of seconds he would be. She had no other choice.
Ghen’s stomach flipped over and she dove into the wagon.
Every nerve in her body screamed in protest. Ghen Sarinth did not hide. But she did, squeezing into the back behind crates and sacks and yards of cloth.
Everything was quiet. Too quiet. Ghen could hear her own heartbeat, echoing through the caravan.
It wasn’t her heart, she realized, but the carved clock from before. She inched it from the box next to her, staring into its etched face as it ticked away her final seconds.
Ghen closed her eyes. This was it. At her side, the baby seemed to still, as though she too could sense the end.
The wagon started to move.
Ghen’s eyes shot open.
The familiar hum of foreign mumbles drifted from the front and the bump-bump of the wheels on the worn roads began its familiar rock of the wagon frame.
An involuntary breath escaped Ghen.
They were leaving.
Slowly and quietly, she unwound the baby from her side and settled the girl on her lap. They were going to be okay. Ghen almost laughed in relief.
Hours later, the two slid from the wagon, silent, and made the rest of the journey to Hirren’s burrow.
Ghen gave a gentle knock on the door and it burst open, Hirren’s massive grin filling the space. His partner Owen appeared beside him, eyes lighting up when he saw the baby.
“Incredible,” Hirren said, smile visible through his beard. “Incredible. Ghen Sarinth, you are a legend.”
He reached for the squirming bundle.
The smuggler stepped back, holding the baby tight. Gurgling, the girl clapped her hands.
“Let’s talk about my payment.”