It is hard to know where to begin with a place like The Shaded Dragon, for there are so many storied and personalities that call the place home. Do you start with the staff, the patients, the forces from without that exert control over the building? Do you start with the history or the now? To my mind we should start, as all good stories should, with a woman.
This particular woman is a little over twenty. Her clothes are ragged, her hair a mess and her skin covered in the grime only the poor and unwashed can ignore. Her name is Tess, and she stands in a long line awaiting her judgement.
Not that she has committed any crime, save the crime of being poor. The reasons for which, although important, will be kept close to my chest for now. Just now her actions were noble, and her reasons just. But it cannot be argued that she is now without money. Indeed, her value to society is now measured in the negative and her debts are large and overdue.
She has tried all she can to keep up with the payments she is due to make, but honest work is scarce and dishonest work is not within her character. She left it too late to run, not that she would have even if she hadn’t. Her father, all that is left of her family, still lives within the confines of The Empire and she will not abandon him completely. His name is Ted, a most unlikable character. But rather than me clouding your judgement of the man here, I will let the story do that for you.
And so we wait in line with Tess, surrounded by the destitute of The Empire as they wait to be called before a Bailiff of the Poor. Time, and the line, move slowly. Early morning mist is replaced by burning heat is replaced by the cooling winds brought by the moon. Due to the number of destitute, and the vital functions they serve for The Empire, the line never stops moving and the Bailiffs never stop passing judgement.
A little after the moon has passed its highest point in the sky, Tess is called before a Bailiff. He is a stout man, grey of hair and wrinkled of face. Although impossible to tell, he is also a man devoid of imagination and full of compassion that is natural to him. His voice is gruff and his tone formal and forceful.
The Bailiff nods, running his finger down a long scroll of names and figures. Finding her name he looks up, only once and very briefly, and releases a long whistle from between his lips.
“A big debt, but for a worthy cause. What skills do you possess?”
“Few. I apprenticed with the weavers for only a few short weeks before family matters took over.”
“I see. Were you the sole care provider for all those years?”
“At the beginning no, but as costs racked up I did more and more. At the end I was the only one left.”
Her voice is shallow, quiet and mirthless. Fitting of her situation, but not of the person. A nagging voice inside the Bailiff tells him that the woman standing before him is just a shell of the woman she needs to be. Still, there is little he can do. She owes a lot of money and will need to work for The Empire until she is debt free. The Bailiff consults his list of jobs.
“I can offer you a choice. We are at war with the Kingdom to the east, and all men and woman who venture forth to protect our borders will serve ten years and have all debts written off. I must warn you that none so far have lasted more than a year.
“Secondly, The Shaded Dragon is always looking for staff. Although you have no formal qualifications I am sure your experience can more than make up for that. As a simple care giver, and given your debt, you would serve there for fifteen years at least. You may have a moment to decide.”
If she had been blessed with the gift of foresight I do believe she would have chosen the war. Luckily for us she had no such gift, and although she would serve longer at The Shaded Dragon, she would be much closer to home and much more likely to come alive. At that moment, the choice was obvious.
“I will work at The Shaded Dragon.”
The Bailiff looked at her like one does a chicken just before you remove the head, for he knew the perils and benefits of both jobs, and he knew the war and death was the compassionate option. But he said nothing.
“Agreed. The guard will escort you to a lodging house and transport will take you to The Shaded Dragon in the morning.”
And with that her fate was sealed.