The soldier to the left, the one with the crimson brocade piping on his uniform, had a thick shock of light brown hair, and long sideburns. He had a slightly sleepy look on his face, half closed eyelids obscuring his light blue eyes. He leaned back in his chair, with one leg stretched out and the other crossed over it.
“I’m telling you, sister dear, we’ve made the right decision,” he said. “Birmisia is the promised land. There are riches there, just waiting for someone to go out and pick them up. No one is there yet. Mallontah is thriving, but it’s thousands of miles away. We’ll have to build our own infrastructure.”
“What do you know about infrastructure, Augie?” said the woman.
“I know you need it.”
The soldier to the right, the one with no crimson brocade piping on his uniform, was older, his darker brown hair showing the first bits of grey at the temples. He, like the woman, sat rigidly in his seat, though Senta doubted that in his case this was necessitated by a tightly laced and rigid corset. His features spoke of his family connection as well as the other soldier’s words had. His dark blue eyes looked kind—kind but sad.
“So we aren’t considering Cartonia?” he asked.
“Cartonia was never a serious consideration,” the woman replied. “It was simply obfuscation.”
“Well, you had better be sure,” he said.
“I am sure. I’ve used every ounce of influence the family has, to set this up.”
“I’m sure too,” said the younger soldier. He and the woman both looked at their older brother.
“All right,” he said.
Senta didn’t hear any more of the conversation. She had moved far enough along, as she cleaned the wrought iron railing, that the conversations of other patrons, though to her mind far less interesting, obscured that of the woman and her two soldier brothers. There was also the noise of the street. So the eight year old girl continued scrubbing, now with nothing as exciting as the far away lands of Cartonia and Birmisia to occupy her. Soon enough she was finished cleaning the railing, and returned once again to the janitorial closet in the back of the building, where she exchanged her bucket of soot-filled water and scrub brush, for a clean cloth and a small jar of polish.
Her last job of the day was to polish the brass dragon at the entrance to Café Carlo. It was about three feet long, including its serpentine tail, and about four feet wide, its wings outstretched. It sat on a stone plinth, so that it could just about look Senta in the face. She didn’t know for sure, but it always seemed to her that the brass dragon was very old. She was sure that it had been sitting here in this very same spot long before Café Carlo was here. It might have even been here before the plaza. Maybe before the great city was even here. Senta polished the entire body, head, tail, and wings of the dragon, taking great care to get the creamy abstergent worked into every nook and cranny. Taking care of the dragon was by far her favorite part of her job. When she was done, she returned the supplies to the janitorial closet and went back around to the front to wait for Carlo. She was careful to stand in a corner, out of the way of any patrons, and clear of the path of the waitresses.
She had to wait several minutes for Carlo to notice her. He was busy delivering sandwiches to the two soldiers who sat with the woman in the white pinstriped dress. Not cucumber sandwiches on white bread. Their sandwiches were thick slices of dark bread, piled high with slab after slab of ham. This was no surprise to Senta. Soldiers were always hungry. She had seen them eating many times: the officers here at Café Carlo, and the common soldiers purchasing food from vendors near the park, or at the beanery in her own neighborhood. At last, Carlo noticed her and held out his hand to her, dropping her fourteen copper pfennigs for the week into her callused palm. They were small coins, with the profile of the King on the obverse side, and the front of a stately building, Senta didn’t know which building, on the reverse side. She stuffed the coins, a few fairly bright, but most well worn, into her pocket.
“See Gyula,” said Carlo.
A surprised Senta nodded and scurried back to the kitchen. This was an unexpected boon. Gyula was the junior of the two line cooks, which meant that he was the lowest ranked of the four people who prepared the food in the café. An order to see him was an indication that she was being rewarded with foodstuffs of some kind. When she entered the kitchen, Gyula looked up from his chopping and smiled. He was a young man, in his mid twenties, with a friendly round face, blond hair, and laughing eyes. He was chopping a very large pile of onions, and the fact that he had only his left hand to do it, seemed to hinder him not at all. When Gyula was a child, about the same age as Senta was now, he had worked in a textile mill, where his job was to stick his tiny arm into the gaps in the great machines and remove wads of textiles that had gummed up the works. In his case, as in many others, the restarting machine proved quicker than his reflexes, and snipped off his arm just below the elbow.
“Hey Senta!” said Gyula, setting down his knife and wiping his left hand on his white apron.
“Carlo sent me back.”
“Excellent,” said Gyula.
He became a one-handed whirlwind, as he carved several pieces of dark bread from a big loaf, and piled an inch of sliced ham, slathered with dark, brown mustard between them. He wrapped the great sandwich, which Senta happily noted was even bigger than those the soldiers had received, in wax paper. He likewise wrapped a monstrous dill pickle, and placed both in the center of a large, clean, red, plaid cloth; folding in the four corners, and tying them in a bow, to make a bindle. Gyula handed the package to Senta, smiling. When he had the opportunity, the young line cook favored Senta with great, heaping bounties of food, but he dared not do it without Carlo’s permission. It wouldn’t be easy for a one-armed man to find a job this good, and no one in his right mind, however kind-hearted and happy-go-lucky he was, would endanger it for a child he didn’t really even know.
“Thank you, Gyula,” said Senta, and grabbing the red, plaid bundle, scurried out the door and down the sidewalk.