Chapter 27 - Naturalized
They had passed the border to the Northern Territories a few days ago, now. During that time Sis and Jack had continued to sleep in the tent. There were taverns and inns that allowed short ones to take a room, actually; and either of them would have favored one over the windy leather tent, but Jack had insisted to stay offside the main roads. He had explained that the border regions were actually pretty dangerous, especially for non-humans. A lot of thieves besieged the rich trade routes, outlaws switched between north and south to evade justice, and of course there were slave hunters. Around here they didn't just hunt down runaways. In this region they kidnap short ones from the north, smuggle them into the south and sell them as slaves. Men, women... even children.
According to Jack, it weren't just thieves and outlaws who captured slaves here. This business was a whole industry. Putative normal establishments - inns, taverns, accommodations - eagerly invited short ones, served them like any other customer, but, when no one is looking, they disappear.
There exists a whole dark network for the acquisition of slaves for the need of the south. Slave hunters and traders, smugglers, people who could forge you any document, sellers, buyers, retailers, customers.... And every now and then some money found its way into the pockets of some bribable guards or lawmen. The system was ruled by underground lords. Some of them hidden in the shadows, others had normal lives in the public.
But it wasn't all that bad, Jack had calmed the fox. If one knows his way around this area and if you keep an eye open, it's not all that dangerous. It's not like there's someone lurking at you around every corner. And indeed Sis noticed that, the farther they got from the border, more and more short ones were around. Of course only the big species like bears or wolfs. People who could defend themselves against the bigger humans, if need be. But humans still dominated the sight.
As of now, Sis and Jack had passed quite some settlements, since they had crossed the border, and right now they were heading for a certain one. Jack wanted to go there. Sis didn't know why and, upon asking, Jack said it would be a surprise.
It was a weird feeling for Sis to walk into a town just like that, without a disguise and open for everyone to see. Though he was the only short one on the street, he didn't draw much attention. It was late afternoon, so the place was pretty lazy, anyways. Even in the center of the small town, where Jack was leading the fox, everything was peaceful.
"There we are!" Jack said and pointed to a particular building in front of them. The house looked official. It had direct access to the local market place, was in very good condition and draped with signs and posters. It was one of the biggest buildings in the town.
Unless Jack was going to rob the place, which was highly unlikely to this time, this didn't seem like the first place a guy like Jack would want to visit when arriving at town, Sis thought. "What do we want here, Jack?" the fox asked.
The human smiled down at him, "Making sure, that you won't end up as a slave ever again. C'mon!"
Briefly Sis wondered how this would be possible, as he was ushered into the building. It indeed seemed to be some kind of an official institute. The interior smelled heavily of old paper and, as far as the fox could see, all of the rooms were used as offices in some way. The room they were in right now held a big counter for customers, and as Jack, followed by Sis, approached it, someone in the back moved to meet them.
It was a human, of course. The man was big and carried a round gut with him. Judging by his overall appearance and the thick beard in his face, Sis would have guessed him at least twice as old as Jack. The man looked to be somewhat friendly at least.
Just as friendly, Jack offered his hand to the man, "I'm Joffrey Brooks and this is my companion Sis." Yet another one of Jack's many pseudonyms.
"Good day, Mr. Brooks, Mr. Sis" the man said behind his beard, shaking Jack's hand. "I am Sir Norman Frettman, second chairman of the city council. How may I be of service?"
"We'd like to perform a naturalization for my small friend here," Jack said.
"He is from the south then, I take it?" the bearded man asked. Jack nodded. "Well, if you have anything at hand, we might start right away. It's a quiet day today."
Sis was quite confused about what was going on, but he presumed Jack would know what he was doing, so he let him continue.
After the older man had armed himself with a sheet of paper, a fountain pen and a pair of glasses, he went on, "Name, please?"
Sis was quiet and waited for Jack to answer, but the human remained silent and gestured for the fox to speak for himself. Clumsily he opened his mouth, "Uh, Sis."
Sir Frettman, as he had introduced himself, scribbled the three letters down and specified his question, "The full name, please?"
Unsure the fox looked up to Jack, who nodded only approvingly, so he proceeded, "Sis of Karstrom's Woods."
"And you were born in...?" the man wanted to know next.
"Uh, in the year 848," he said after begging Jack's visual approval again, then he added, "in Karstrom's Woods."
"Have you ever been to the Northern Territories before?"
"No," he said shaking his head.
"Do you have any relatives here?" came the next question.
"Have you ever committed a crime according to the laws of the Northern Territories, and are you currently prosecuted for such a crime by any law enforcement authority, whether of the North or the South?"
Searching for help, Sis looked up to Jack again. The fox remembered what he had told Jack about his flight, what he had done. To his relief the human answered his unspoken question with a shake of the head. "No," Sis answered aloud to Sir Frettman.
"Are you engaged or married to a citizen of either the Northern or the Southern Territories, and do you have any offsprings?"
"No," Sis answered again. And finally this seemed to be the last question the fox had to answer.
"Alright," Sir Frettman said. "Just one moment of patience, please." Then the old man took his notes and walked to the back.
Still confused and questioning, Sis stared up to Jack, who only smiled down at him like the idiot he was. It took only a small moment before the old human came back. In his hand he held a large piece of paper, different than the one he had before, that was attached to a small, leathery document wallet.
Sir Frettman placed the unfolded document on the counter and said, "That would be a total of one-hundred twenty-eight gold coins."
Sis made big eyes as he heard the sum. One-hundred and twenty-eight gold coins were quite a mark. He remembered vaguely that the jewelry Jack and he had stolen, only brought them around sixty gold coins. Still, Jack played it cool. He reached into his pocket and paid the man.
Next, the bearded human took his pen again, signed the document and rolled a big stamp over the paper. Lastly he heated some red wax, let it drip on the paper and pressed a seal down on it. After the wax was cooled down, the man folded the document and securely stored it in the attached leather wallet. "Is there anything else you need, Sir?" he asked as he put the bundle down on the counter.
"No, that would be all. Thank you very much," Jack answered and picked the wallet up. The other man nodded simply and went back to his work.
Back on the street Sis wanted to know, "Why on earth did you pay over a hundred gold coins for this piece of paper, Jack?"
The human still wore his smile, despite the fact that he had just spent a fortune. He moved down to the fox and handed him the document over. Then he said, "This certificate attests that, from now on, you are a registered citizen of the Northern Territories. This means that no one in the whole north can ever turn you over to the south against your will. It also means that no person from the south has any legal claim to you anymore. Or with other words: you're officially a free fox now!"
Without words Sis looked at the small piece of leather in his paws. This was a document that declared him free. Officially! "Thank you, Jack," he said and hugged the human. He didn't care that the whole town could see. He only wanted to thank Jack for this gift. "Thank you."
Chuckling, Jack patted the fox's back, "Everything for you, foxy."
Parting from the embrace, Sis opened the leather wallet and inspected the document - no, the certificate! Now he wished he could read better. He could make out the words 'north' and 'territories' and of course he recognized his name, but the rest made barely sense to him. It didn't help that Sir Frettman had a difficult to read handwriting. He offered the paper to Jack, who still crouched beside him. "Would you please read it for me?"
The human smiled, "Sure thing, foxy." Then he took the certificate and began to read it aloud:
"United North-Karsarian Territories
Sis of Karstrom's Woods of vulpine breed and male gender, born in the year 848 in Karstrom's Woods, is hereby declared a citizen of the United North-Karsarian Territories.
As such citizen he will henceforth live under the royal laws of the United North-Karsarian Territories and serve his Realm and People.
Issued by Sir Norman Frettman, member of the city council of Tearsom, in the year 871. Authorized by the decree of Sir Ian Meplor, Lord of Karshold and minister of the United Territories for the realm's inner affairs."
After he had read out the last word, Jack turned the document for Sis to see. "With seal, stamp and all the trimmings," he said and handed the paper back.
Again Sis marveled over the certificate. The fine, if a bit hard to read, writing of Sir Frettman with his signature at the bottom, the big stamp mark brought onto the paper with thick, black ink and of course the bright red wax seal, showing the emblem of the city of Tearsom, a town in the rain, with some more words around the picture. "Thanks, Jack," the fox said again.
"Keep it safe and come on," Jack spoke. "We've still got some days of travel before us for you to be safe. For today, though, I guess we're staying at this place. It's about to get dark. And anyways," he said with a big smile, "we've got something to celebrate, right?"
So they headed for a nearby tavern, Jack made out. According to him, the place was safe. However 'safe' would not have been the first word for the establishment the fox could think of. The place was small, crowded, smelled of alcohol and tobacco and was pretty noisy.
When Jack approached the bar, he put down a stack of cupper coins and said, "Hey Tully! Gimme a room, some food and your best beer."
It took the bartender a moment to recognize Jack. "Jim? Jim!!" he called and both shared a short hug. "Man, I haven't seen you in ages. How've you been?"
"Ah, getting by, ya know?" Jack responded. "I'm just coming from the south. Heading for a warmer place."
"And you've brought yourself a souvenir, as I see," the man said, leaning over the counter and eyeing Sis over.
Jack laughed, "He just followed me home, I couldn't do a thing about it! I mean, could anyone reject such a cute foxy?!"
Laughing the man bowed over the counter and reached for Sis' paw, "I'm Tulloch, but ya can call me Tully."
A bit suspicious Sis shook the man's hand, "Er, nice to meet you."
"So beer, stew and a room for one, I take it?"
Jack scooted over the coins under his hand and said, "You know me, Tully!"
"I sure do," he said and went to fill two tankards.
Now Jack addressed Sis, "How about you grab us a table, foxy? I'll be there in a minute, and I'll bring some good stuff."
The small fox nodded and scampered through the crowded room, past tables full of half-drunken people and people that weren't quite that half-drunken anymore. At the left wall of the stuffed room he found a nice, unoccupied niche. Above the table was a tiny window that led into a dark street. As he tried to look through it, Sis noticed something moving on the old, wooden window sill. It was a tiny, green caterpillar, creeping over the wood. Sis wondered for a moment, what a caterpillar was doing in this place, in the middle of winter, before Jack joined him and put two glasses on the table that contained a milky liquor. It was definitely no beer.
"Now then," Jack said. "On your newly acquired freedom, foxy." Then he downed his glass.
"What is this?" Sis asked, taking a sniff. The stuff had a sharp sting in his sensitive nose.
"Vocatus," Jack explained. "But that probably won't ring a bell. Try it, it's good."
Trusting his friend - which was his first mistake - Sis took a sip of the liquid and swallowed it right down - his second mistake.
He almost spit the stuff over the whole table. His tongue burned horribly. Sis slammed the glass on the table and shoved the terrible thing away, "Oh god! What the hell was that? Petroleum?! How can you even drink this?"
Jack couldn't hold himself from laughing. "Hahahaha! Man! You should have seen your face," he said and mimicked Sis' expression. Still chuckling he downed the fox's drink too.
"Seriously, this is disgusting."
Just as he said that, Tully came by and brought two big tankards full of beer and two bowls of steaming stew. "Here," Jack said, taking one mug from Tully and passing it to the fox. "Wash it down."
"Awww.... Doesn't he like our homemade Vocatus?" Tully commented as he set the bowls down.
"Was a bit too strong for 'im." Jack answered.
Tully sighed, "Ah, this southerners... they just can't take anything. Especially not the good stuff." He took the two empty glasses away. "You want another one, Jim?"
"Nah, thanks. I'm good for now," Jack denied.
"Well then, call me if you need anything." And then Tully was gone.
After Sis' maw had recovered, he set the mug down. "Jim?" he asked.
The human waited before he ducked his spoon into the stew, "What? You don't like the name?"
"It's just, do you have a different identity for anyone you know?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Jack admitted. "It was good that Tully said my name as we met," he continued. "'Cause I couldn't remember whether it was Jim or John."
Sis shook his head, "I can't believe it." Finally tasting something again, he tested the stew. It was pretty standard, nothing special. "Say, that guy, Tully," sis asked, "does he know about your... erm, about your preferences? He's offered us a room for one."
"Eeeh, it's more something like 'don't ask, don't tell'. I wouldn't say he's on the wrong way though, hmh? As long as I pay my bills, he doesn't seem to mind, so, who cares?"
During their simple meal for the evening, and three more rounds of beer, Jack and Sis had a good time. They talked and ate and drunk and laughed.... This was exactly what Sis always had imagined when he dreamed about a normal life, far away from the slavery. A nice place, some nice company and a reason to smile. He was so grateful for Jack that he had offered this all to him. That he had enabled this life for him.
When the evening turned into the night and Jack and Sis were both pretty tipsy, Jack gestured for the staircase. "Wanna move the party some'ehre more p'ivat, foxy?"
Not able to stop smiling like a doofus, Sis agreed and stood on wavering legs. Together they staggered up the stairs.