The trouble at the gate already forgotten, Oriana openly gaped. The only building she had seen before today was the one she lived in; the crowd of structures surrounding her here threatened to overwhelm her senses. And the people!
Those that could be seen outdoors were very dull-looking, dressed in faded earth tones and milling about with little enthusiasm. Only their faces moved quickly; every one of them had their solitary left eye darting back and forth between windows, doors, and fellow villagers like a dizzy water spider, as if any of them could burst into flames or attack with no notice.
It didn’t matter to Oriana, though. They could have been stationary and half dead and she would have found it fascinating. She had only seen a handful of people other than her mother in her entire life, and even less this close. They received very few visitors at their cottage in the woods.
Lamentably, there was no time to stop and take it all in. Her mother ushered her quickly through the streets and in her dazzled state she had little choice but to go along with it. A peevish look backwards at Naomi for being rushed past such interesting sights quickly revealed the reason for it, though; a third guard had materialized behind them at some point and seemed to be escorting them to their destination.
Oriana gave him a dirty look and walked forward without the urging of her mother. She knew better than to object to the guard’s presence, but she didn’t have to pretend to like it. She could only hope he wouldn’t accompany them the whole time they were in town.
Much to her dismay, a half hour later, after they had left the census office with Oriana’s new identification and made their way to the mayor’s office for the visitor’s pass, the guard was still there. More and more people filled the streets as they made their way further in, but the guard kept pace with them the whole way. She was just beginning to think he would never leave when he did just that, parting ways with them silently on the steps outside after they had finished at the mayor’s.
Finally free to speak without being eavesdropped upon, Oriana found herself without words. Instead, she fixed Naomi in a questioning stare. Perhaps not the most effective way to get answers from a blind woman, but Oriana knew her mother better than to assume she would let something as inconsequential as being unable to see hinder her.
“What…? Why…?” Oriana attempted, flummoxed.
A man reading from a large book chained to his waist nearly walked into her, and this seemed to jog her memory. Everyone seemed to have those books chained to their sides, and a stamp, just like her mother had brought. She pointed accusingly at the man, but realized even her mother wouldn’t pick up on this in a crowd, and finally found her voice again.
“Books? Stamps? Contracts? Identification? Visitor’s pass? Seals and… and registers? And a guard following us!” Oriana was nearly hysterical, overcome with curiosity she had barely been containing.
Naomi grinned. It wasn’t very often Oriana got this excited about something.
“Walk with me, little one, and I’ll explain what I can.”
Oriana obeyed, and the pair of them set off for the market. Oriana watched the villagers, the Cynics, as Naomi gave her explanation, and noted that she had been right; every single villager had the book and most had the stamp to accompany it. Children who she was sure couldn’t read yet even had books, though theirs were much smaller. They were also the only ones who didn’t have stamps.
“I suppose it’s easiest to start with contracts,” Naomi began, navigating her way through the crowd with very little assistance from her daughter. “Contracts are what the Cynics have instead of trust, since their left eyes rob them of that. They are written agreements that carry the penalty of death if broken. A long time ago, it was agreed upon that this was the only way Cynics could function as a society.”
Oriana frowned, her eyes closing as she pondered what this meant. It seemed like an awfully sad way to live. It was no wonder everything was so dreary around here. Even the happy people looked apprehensive, as if worried the world would quickly conspire to take whatever they had to be happy about away from them. She decided very quickly to do her best to bring a bit of cheer to the place in whatever way she could.
“They make contracts for every little thing,” her mother continued, “and keep them all with them in those books they carry, registers. Your identification and visitor’s pass are just like a contract, but without a stamp from you. The stamps—seals—are how they mark their agreement; every one of them is unique and hand crafted by its owner as soon as they are old enough to read. Before that, their parents will seal their contracts for them.”
“Do they make contracts for what’s for dinner?” Oriana asked, giggling.
Oriana’s jaw fell. “…what?!”
“'I, the man of the household, swear that I will provide meat for three meals per week unless ample reason can be given for its absence.’” Naomi recited, nodding solemnly. “’I, the lady of the household, swear that I will provide vegetables for our daily meal, either from our own garden or from the market, unless drought or other unforeseen events occur.'”
Oriana playfully shoved her mother. “You're lying,” she declared.
Naomi’s growing smile quickly evaporated, and she picked up her pace as nearby Cynics began to stare.
Oriana, confused, matched her mother’s pace and waited for an explanation.
“Lying, while not punishable by death, will get you a solid whipping,” Naomi whispered as they rushed along. “They don't take accusations lightly, and an investigation would take longer than I am comfortable staying here.”
Once she was sure they had left behind anyone who overheard their earlier conversation, she stopped and knelt in front of her daughter, placing her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Remember when I told you how important it is not to lie while we are here? We took a big risk at the gate, but only because we could have ran if necessary. From now on I need you to either tell the truth or say nothing, all right?”
Oriana nodded. Her mother always saw through her lies anyway; she shouldn't have too much difficulty not abusing the truth.
Naomi either felt or sensed the nod, because she seemed satisfied.
“Right then. This is our destination, for now,” Naomi said. Oriana took a look around and realized they had stopped in a busy market. There were stalls everywhere selling things she didn't even recognize, and more people than she could keep track of. In short, it was a treasure trove of unexplored oddities.
Her mother was fidgeting and her voice was higher than usual, but Oriana was far too occupied to attach any importance to it.
“I need to buy my things now, so you'll have to wait here. Do not leave the square. Do not take off your patch. Do not attract any attention to yourself. Answer any questions the guard ask you as honestly as you can without giving yourself away." Understanding its importance, Orianna resisted the urge to silently parrot the speech she had by now memorized.
"Here is some money,” Naomi continued, handing Oriana a few coins. “Go pick out a register and make yourself a seal. I’ll meet you back here when I'm done.”
“Thanks mom,” Oriana beamed, kissing Naomi on the cheek.
“And stay out of trouble!”
“I will, mom! Bye!”
Oriana was gone before her mother could even stand up, darting through the legs of the many villagers and quickly disappearing into the crowd.
Naomi sighed as she lost the familiar cadence of her daughter's footsteps, and turned to her own task.
“I hope this wasn't a bad idea…”