Sunshine streams through the windows, encouraging me to slip out of the warm covers. I dress in the plainest clothing I own. A simple navy blouse, with a crimson sash pulled over the top, and a belt tying the outfit in at my waist. I wear dark gray trousers and knee high boots to complete the look. My clothes lay crisp against my body.
I pull my dark hair back into braids that end in two puffy buns and rinse my face. I assess myself in the bathroom. The entirety of one wall is a giant mirror. I look perfect—almost. I grab my red headband and place it on my head. Perfect.
A light, rhythmic knock at my door pulls my attention away. I open the door to reveal a very pleased looking Tally. Today they wear plain clothes, a beige romper with baggy legs and belled long sleeves, tapered at their wrists and ankles. Their hair is pulled back in the same low style. A surplus of beaded necklaces and bracelets, colorful and ranging in sizes offset the neutral color of the romper. They look like a dragon’s hoard.
Tally smiles brightly. “Ah, you’re ready. Wonderful.”
They drag me from my room and into the grand hallway. We pass the same intimidating paintings; each one eyes me as I walk. From the architecture and interior of the embassy, I suspect Delmounians live lavishly. Every room I have seen is decorated in white and gold, with crystal chandeliers and bright, clean furniture. Everything I touch is white and perfectly clean.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Tally smiles fondly at their surroundings, taking in the detailed design. I realize they see this perhaps every day, and yet they seem just as amazed as I am seeing it the first time. I wonder if this is why Delmounians take such pride in their main city, it's a work of art. Stunning, of course, but I prefer the sturdy function of a Stayer city.
“Nothing quite like I have ever seen,” I say instead of agreeing. This place makes me dizzy.
We finally make it outside, and the natural lighting feels like a Benadryl after a walk in the woods. Tally guides me through the streets, their shoulders relaxed. They’re at ease. I take a few breaths and follow in Tally’s footsteps, trying to mimic the same confidence they emit, blending in. As we walk, I try to pick out each street from my mental map of Delmoun.
“I was thinking of taking you to our shopping district,” Tally says, “They have some of the loveliest fashions. Maybe you’d like to wear some Delmounian fits home to impress all your Strayer friends?” Tally strikes a model pose, showing off their artery outfit.
I chuckle and nod along, taking in their accentuated accent and relaxed grammar. “As long as they’ll speak Deilic with me, that sounds great.” I smile, my father’s serious expression and words coming to my mind.
The walk to the shopping district is short. I admire the well planned layout of the capital city, everything I could want is just a short walk away. Tally keeps a pleasant expression the entire time, and they keep the conversation going while they lead me through different shops.
Tally picks up a handful of items at each stop, displaying them for me and gushing over why they would look lovely with my clothes or hair or skin tone. I smile and agree, but I don’t buy anything. Dresses and broaches aren’t exactly the uniquely Delmounian souvenir I’m looking for.
I do, however, bring out products to the employees and ask them questions. They seem happy to answer, even when I don’t make any purchases. I suspect Tally's accompanying presence keeps them intrigued and respectful.
At the fifth shop, Tally stops. “Okay, Junior, what is it you’re looking for? Give me a hint.”
I contemplate, keeping my eyes down as I shuffle through racks of clothes. The style of Delmoun is a lot different then back home. The clothes are colorful, wild, and patterned, like beautiful tropical birds. It looks great on Tally and everyone around us, but I can’t picture myself wearing any. The jewelry is exquisite too, but it’s flashy and excessive for my tastes.
I stop thumbing through the clothes. “Perhaps there is a place where I can look at some local art?”
Tally smiles knowingly, “I know just the place. It’s a little off-road for a visitor, but I’ll take you on one condition.” Their change in demeanor draws me in.
“The condition being?” I cover my nerves by raising my eyebrows.
“You don’t tell your father,” they chuckle. Then they add, “or my boss.”
The corner of my lips turn up in a smirk, “deal.”
Tally leads me through the streets. I try to ask them questions about where we’re going, all of which they charmingly avoid. While Tally warned me our destination was “off-road,” they lead me to a large, aboveground platform. We stand there, sharing pleasantries with other commuters waiting for their train.
“Where are we going?”
Tally insists, “You’ll like it.”
I roll my eyes at Tally’s evasiveness, liking them more and more.
The train cuts through the air like a boat cuts through water. The train floats while the tracks hum several feet below.The doors slide open without noise, and we board. After an hour of small talk and staring out the window, Tally stands and leads me off at the next stop.
“Welcome to suburbia!” Tally links their arm in mine and heads for the little downtown area ahead of us.
I pull up my mental map of the city. We seem so far from the capital and its grand buildings stacked upon one another, reaching for the sky in an array of white and gold. The map confirms this. I note the mismatched buildings, a mere 3 to 5 stories high. Despite the vibrantly painted brick walls and finely groomed topiaries, it appears a much humbler town than the capital.
Tally takes me down a few blocks, and then across the street. The buildings here are lower, but still they stand about four stories high. The brick walls are primarily neutral browns and mild reds, a few buildings remain unpainted.
Tally and I approach a long, ranch-style complex. A floral mural drawls across the red brick facade. Tally opens the thick, stained glass door that leads directly into a stairwell. We descend the stairs and I feel the temperature shift as we go below ground level. Basements are uncommon in Delmoun, considering they are on a floating chunk of earth. I wonder how close the walls are to open air. While I recognize we are far too inner city for that, the thought still makes me shiver.
The building we enter has low ceilings and low lighting. Long walls separate the large, open room into cubicles, each displaying different forms of art and their makers. The mediums vary, sculptures and paintings and handmade trinkets. The market bustles with humans. I pick up a few new words here and there, but so many different conversations all at once make it difficult to actually understand anything.
Tally offers for me to take the lead, and I bring them over to a kiosk that catches my eye. They have little gadgets built from found items, scrap metals and bolts. A small, bronze bat, about the length of my thumb, snares my attention. My brain pulls up images of it, Myotis grisescens, the Gray Bat. I look around the marketplace and note a similar trend throughout the different stalls. Perhaps it is because this location is underground, and mildly cavelike. It’s a stretch but seeing as the national animal of Delmoun is a kingfisher, I haven’t any other ideas.
I take a closer look at the tiny bat made of copper wire, thin metal sheets, and other small metallic bits and parts. Its wings are spread wide. Its eyes are perhaps the only purposeful object, two little black jewels nestled into a cute, stubby face. The body looks made from a can or tin of sorts, but soldered and textured to give it a little peach fuzz and mask the base. Sometimes I wonder if this is what the people of Delmoun would see if they could really see me, wires and cogs. I avoid Tally’s expectant eyes.
“This is beautiful,” I say to the vendor, who I assume is also the artist. The vendor has bright, hooded eyes and long graying hair.
The woman smiles at me, looking me up and down. “Ah, yes. This’s one of my favorites. Took me hours t’make, an’ even longer to scavenge.”
Her speech is accented, very different from Tally and the other Delmounians I’ve met so far. She speaks highly of her own work, and I can see why. “Where did you find the pieces?”
The artist eyes Tally skeptically, and then says in a low tone, “on the Mantle. Have you heard of our lower cities?”
The vendor nods at my Stayer accent. I rub my arm.
“The Mantle, yes, I have read what information I can find on it. There is not much.”
“S’pose it makes sense, really. They say it’s a dangerous place,” she stops short as Tally walks up with a suspicious smile. They grab my arm lightly and steer me away, never breaking eye contact with the vendor.
I wave to her in apology. She shrugs, seeing her potential profit walk away.
“Wait,” The word slips out in Staykar.
“Don’t talk to people like her,” Tally says with a strained smile. “They really have no concept of how the real world works, I’m afraid. People say their brains are all foggy from the toxins below.”
“She was from Lower Delmoun?” I look back at the vendor.
The woman didn’t seem very delusional to me, but I keep quiet. I flip through the few articles I found and downloaded on Lower Delmoun, or rather the Mantle. I pull their authors’ information as well. They are all from the Uppercrust, and they all write condescendingly or pitifully of the Mantle and its inhabitants.
“Oh, wonderful!” Tally exclaims, “here, this is the artist I brought you for.”
I look in the direction they point. On a short ladder, covered in paint swatches, I spot the painter in the middle of working on an enormous piece. It depicts low buildings on the edge of a clean river. It reminds me of Strayer. Tally watches them in awe. I have to admit, the way the painter masterfully strokes the colors onto the canvas is incredibly soothing. It reminds me of the field of wheat I saw on a class trip to a nature farm…before my parents decided I was better off homeschooled.
Tally continues, “as you can see, this painter is quite excellent.” Their voice softens.
Eyeing Tally suspiciously, I note the differences in their inflection while they speak. My eyes trace the painter as they keep working. Their delicate hands, making long, fast strokes, and equally small, mindful ones.
In the corner, past their stall, another shop draws my attention. It is twice as big as all the other stalls, with a series of six tables lined up in neat rows. While the tables are neat, the items they hold are stacked haphazardly on top of them. I link my arm around Tally’s and drag them over to the station. Tally looks a little confused, but they follow me without another word.
I pick out a section of the shop with old gadgets and devices. Tally tells me these were vacuums. They are bizarre looking, clunky, with a handle and detachable parts.The tall one with the handle and vinyl pouch looks vaguely like a bagpipe. I chuckle to myself, imagining a world where people had to push their own vacuums over cumbersome, hairy carpets. In my country, we have plush moss carpets inside that regularly clean themselves and keep the air fresh.
I grab a mini one that has a word etched in the center: Roomba. The Roomba is small and circular with a hard plastic shell on top and little brushes and wheels underneath. It reminds me of a horseshoe crab, my favorite animal. There are little plastic eyeballs glued to the top that move around when I shake it. I shake it.
I hold it up to Tally with a smile. “Look, it’s Roomba!”
Tally tries to fake an encouraging smile, and fails. They laugh instead. “That? It’s junk!”
“It is endearing.”
“Really, it’s not. It’s dirty.” They grimace at me. “It literally eats dirt. Ate dirt. Old dirt.”
The shopkeeper walks up to us with a smile. He regards Tally with careful eyes. “Welcome, folks. What can I do for you?”
“I want to purchase Roomba,” I state.
“Ah, the Roomba is a very antique piece invented in Early Delmoun. It’s from the 2000s.” He inclines his head. “I could part with it for 70.”
I furrow my brow. “That seems steep. It does not even function. I can do it for 40.”
He smiles, “call it 50 and we have a deal.”
Tally jumps in, “are you sure this is what you want, Aubrey? We saw many, many other good pieces of art and clothing. Perhaps you’d like to look at my painter’s stall?”
I smile at the silly looking vacuum, waving Tally off. “You have a deal.”
The shopkeeper’s smile grows. “Amazing. I’ll pack up your item and prepare for you to pick it up tomorrow. Bring payment then.”
“Tomorrow?” I ask, disappointed.
“Yes, of course,” he smiles. “I have to get in contact with the owner of the vacuum. I need to make sure they approve of the pricing and of the purchaser.”
His smile grows, “don’t you worry. I guarantee they will approve of the offer. I will write up the contract.” He tips his head in our direction and runs to the back.
After he draws up the paperwork and gets my signature, we make our way back to the train station. I smile broadly. “50, that’s a steal.”
Tally plays with the bottom of their ponytail. “Are you considering the currency exchange? I’m not an accountant, but I do believe 50 drown is about 500 Strayer terodes.”
I stop in my tracks, the smile disappearing from my face. “Drown?” Suddenly my father’s three day meeting seems like good timing. He’s going to be furious. That was half my week's stipend.
“Don’t worry,” Tally reassures, “It will surely work itself out.”
I groan in response to their unending optimism.
“Look at the bright side: tomorrow I get to introduce you to that painter!” Tally smiles easily. I nod along, because I know it will make them happy. I can’t afford a painting now, even if I wanted one.
Tally treats me to lunch, then drops me off at my room with a nervous smile. I thank them, and bumble into the shower. I review all the differences I’ve learned from reading about Delmoun to experiencing Delmoun, particularly the currency exchange. I crawl into bed and scroll through my new information until I fall asleep.