The whistle at the foundry pierced the early morning stillness, announcing the end of third shift. Slowly, the direction of moving bodies reversed, laborers who had been entering to start their first shift of the day eventually becoming those leaving the end of their twelve hour shift, a trickle turning into a torrent of bodies spilling forth from the glowing mouth of the foundry. Weary, drawn faces and coveralls smeared with carbon, ash, and grease made men and women nearly indistinguishable The crowd ambled out into the streets, scattering to the corners of the city, returning to their tenements to eat, sleep, eat again, and return half a day later.
Splitting the crowd like an errant rock diverting a powerful stream, a mangy vagrant shuffled through the moving people, holding out a dented tin can in his left hand. As he hobbled forward, patiently steering the can towards the laborers, hopeful but not expectant that one might be feeling generous enough to drop a coin or two inside. The metallic tang of the foundry mixed strongly with the acrid scent of his unwashed clothes and his festering, wounded eye that was long since overdue for a fresh bandaging. Many of the laborers moved little more than to wrinkle up their nose or to avert their eyes as he approached
The last of the stragglers managed their way out past the beggar, leaving his tin can, and thus his belly, unfilled. The vagrant made his way to the edge of a fountain, empty and unused, at the center of the small square into which the foundry doors emptied, and set himself anf his can on the ledge ready for the morning traffic to begin passing through the square. Balling up his fist, he rubbed at the blinding wound through filthy wrappings. A tinkling in the can diverted his attention mid-movement, and he turned towards a hooded figure that had joined him on the ledge of the fountain. The hood covered most of their face, but from little that could be seen, he recognized the slender jaw line of a young woman.
Scrambling for the can, he scooped it up and dumped its contents into his lap, never speaking a word. Out of the can tumbled a fifty piece, nearly shiny enough to be new. But, despite the lack of patina, he knew that it was at least ten years old, being that the center of the coin held the image of the crest of the Starling dynasty- a dynasty that had been usurped by the dictator, Nathania Obelisk, and her accursed fallen Paragon. No new coins had been minted without the new regime’s visage staining them, leaving the older coins to tarnish and wear through circulation.
Regardless of the imagery on the coin, he knew it would still spend the same. Salivating at the idea of a warm meal, a warm bed, and best indeed, a hot bath, his eyes danced at the thought of such extravagances for a man who rarely received more than a singlet in his can.
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” she added, lifting the corner of her hood and giving him a wink. “Winter is going to be brutal this year. Find someplace nice to ride it out.”
The instant he saw her brightly colored Indigo eyes— a dead giveaway of Paragon ancestry— he recognized her.
“Your Grace,” he gasped, attempting to drop into a bow. “I didn’t realize it was you, Imperatrix.”
She dropped to her knees in front of him, shaking her head and stopping his apologies before he could go any further.
“No one here goes by that name anymore.”
The look of severity on the Imperatrix’s face was not lost on the vagrant, and he pursed his lips, furiously shaking his head in disagreement.
“When your father ruled, I was a professor of Esoterics at the college. After the coup, when they closed the schools, I had to take a job in a glass factory. Five months after I started, there was an explosion. I haven’t worked since…” he indicated to the wounds he had sustained. “I may never teach again. I may never amount to much more than a filthy street beggar, but… you will always be our Imperatrix.”
She gave him a small, sad smile and took his hands in hers. “Thank you, Mr…?” she paused waiting for him to fill in the blank.
He slipped a hand out to cover the top of hers, holding her hands between his. “Travers, your Grace. Eldritch Travers.”
“Then, may the Sisters provide you a light in your darkness, Eldritch,” she said, helping him to his feet.
“May the Sisters provide you infinite blessings, Imperatrix Verity Starling.”
With that, he nodded his good-bye, and hobbled away from the fountain in search of fulfilling his need for proper meal. Verity took her seat back on the ledge, watching him disappear down the street, her heart heavy for his plight, but at least she could sleep tonight knowing he would be safe and warm for a while at least.
“Was it necessary to reveal yourself?” a the deep voice of her Sentinel asked from her left as he approached.
“He was starving. He wouldn’t have made it through the winter.”
“I only meant you could have veiled yourself. I don’t see why it was necessary to expose your identity. “
“They need to know we’re still here, Orie,” she said wistfully. “They need to know that I’m still looking out for my people, even if it is just a rumor spread by a unfortunate soul sporting a fifty piece. It gives them hope.” She stood, turning towards the dawn breaking through the low-hanging smog of the factories, the particles of which scattered the rays of colorful sunrise. “Hope brings dreams. Dreams bring ideas. Ideas bring a better world.”
“Long live the Imperator of Evren,” he replied instinctively at hearing Verity quote the Imperator’s own words, sadly adding, “Long may he reign.”
“To Evren,” Verity scoffed. “May it rest in peace.”