The Democratika

Full Version: Big Trouble in Little Akarea
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Originally posted on March 29, Democratika 3

There is no place like Leng'gangcheng, an Akarean poet had once claimed, centuries ago. No place can rival her in beauty and character, the city where East meets West. Harschburg, as it is known today, was certainly a unique place in the traditional Kanadiaans homeland of Fischerstaat. While it had been part of Candanadium ever since federation in 1783, the nine-hundred year old Akarean-founded city was still distinctly a blend of two very different and unique cultures. Traditional Akarean roofs vied for space with the steeples of Eostrist churches and the pillars and stone and stained glass of traditional Kanadiaans architecture. While the shantytowns and mud shacks by the harbour had been replaced by a modern skyline of glass and steel, like most cities in Candanadium, the spirit of Leng'gangcheng lived on in the Old City, affectionately called Little Akarea by its residents. Here, Akarean Mandarin was the language of choice, taking precedence over both the local Kanadiaans and Oseanian. This is what made Harschburg such an attractive city to new immigrants to Candanadium, especially Akarean ones, who made up almost 50% of the city's one million residents. If one ignored the Oseanian and Kanadiaans signage, downtown Harschburg could feel like central Lao Shaodu, or even a suburban ward of Fujing.

Here, the Akarean sun flew as high as the tri-maple of the federation and the leaping salmon of Fischerstaat, and more often than not, the streets were named for Akarean emperors and cities. An ethnically Candanadian face was almost a rare sight in Little Akarea, and the Akarean tongue dominated everyday life, with the occasional Kanadiaans or Oseanian phrase tossed in. This was one of the few places in the entire country where one could get authentic Akarean cuisine, and Fujing Avenue, the main street bisecting Little Akarea, was home to more than a handful of Akarean restaurants.

One of these such restaurants was the Golden Dragon, a dingy-looking Akarean takeaway shop wedged between an Akarean grocery teeming with the fruits and spices of the orient and a real estate agent's office. It was here that Markus Soong found himself on many an afternoon, sitting behind the cash register, chomping on a piece of bubble gum while doing his Kanadiaans homework, taking the occasional order for fish curry noodles or beef stir fry. Markus had been born Soong Tan-yue in the coastal city of Hai'an seventeen years ago, but he had little to no memory of the place, having been brought to Harschburg by his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Soong Lin-fang when he was barely two years old. Dr. Soong had had a successful career in Hai'an as a general practitioner, and had a sizable amount of money saved away. He had always dreamed of giving his family a brighter future, and with housing prices through the roof in Akarea and an increasingly competitive job market, he had thought it wisest to bring his wife May-hong two year old Tan-yue to Candanadium, where nobody lacked for space or a job. What Dr. Soong did not know, however, was that Candanadium had no shortage of doctors.

The traditional Candanadian education system featured three different kinds of high school for different kinds of students. The most prestigious was the Gymnasium, which emphasized the sciences, the humanities, and the literary arts, for the brightest and most gifted of students. Then there was the Hochschule, which provided a mix of practical skills and course in the humanities and literature. Lastly, there was the Realschule, which prepared students for vocational schools and put a heavy emphasis on practical skills. The educational system was tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each and every individual student, and students went into higher education with a very good idea of what they wanted to do in the future. This meant that Candanadium had a good supply of top-tier professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but also a steady supply of experienced craftsmen such as electricians and plumbers. That, combined with the fact that Dr. Soong's Akarean medical licence had no value in Candanadium, essentially dumped the Soong family back at square one. The prices in Harschburg had seemed astronomical to the Soongs, and they found out soon enough that their savings would last them until the end of their first year in the country. This forced the Soongs to work various odd jobs in Little Akarea, often for less than minimum wage, just to put rice on the table. Eventually they had saved up enough to open a small restaurant on Fujing Avenue, and from then on, the restaurant was the family's lifeline. Dr. Soong and his wife were now confined to working in the kitchen, and starting at age twelve, Markus had been obliged to help man the cash register whenever he wasn't at school.

Though the Soongs' financial situation was less than ideal, Markus had never had trouble at school, having breezed through elementary and middle school with ease. It was then no surprise for him nor his parents that he was accepted to the famed Harschburg Kanadiaans Gymnasium with a full scholarship. Of course, it was also no surprise for him that his parents had pushed him harder than ever to spend more time on his studies, in the traditional Akarean fashion. Between school at the Gymnasium and manning the cash register in the Golden Dragon, he had little, if any, time to himself, rarely, if ever, getting a full night's sleep, especially with his parents often arguing deep into the night, in the dingy little apartment above the restaurant. He didn't find his studies particularly challenging, so he had made a small fortune in writing the essays and completing the worksheets of his classmates, for a hefty price. Most of the students at the Gymnasium were from wealthy Kanadiaans families and were, more often than not, set for life thanks to their parents, and would often slip him a ten- or twenty-thaler note after class along with the day's homework. He found no joy in the work, but it earned him money, and that was what was important, since he couldn't exactly ask his parents to pay him for his work at the Golden Dragon.

The Golden Dragon. To Markus, those three words were the bane of his existence, in any of the three languages in use across the city. He longed to go out there and make a life of his own, in the wide country that stretched from sea to sea, but he was mentally and morally, if not physically, tied to the cash register at the Golden Dragon. While he sat there doing his Kanadiaans homework, his mind often drifted away, to the snowy Mirksai of Belkhomir, the lush Juppertal, or the glamour of New Konigstadt and Port Newcastle. Although he had never been to any of those places, they seemed more real to him than the familiar and hated sights of Little Akarea. That was, coincidentally, what he was doing this February afternoon, under the ratty yellow fluorescent lights of the restaurant. A menu hung above him, and various trinkets and knickknacks from the old country hung on the wall, the tacky wallpaper peeling in some places. The portraits of both the Akarean Emperor and the King of Candanadium hung above the door. Quan Ah looked down at him disappointingly every time he took his seat behind the register, but King Richard I von Magnar's gaze had always seemed kind, almost fatherly to him. He stared back at the both of them, lost in his thoughts, ignorant to the chime of the bell that hung on the door handle, indicating that someone had come in to the restaurant. He was only snapped out of his trance by a gruff voice, speaking in the old tongue of Akarea.

"Ey, boy. Two fish curries to go, but give me flatbread instead of rice, and some herbal tea."

"Hm? Oh, uh, eight thalers, three kreuzen and forty-five. Will that be by cash or card?" He replied in a mixture of Akarean and Kanadiaans that he used with his parents and most customers while pressing a few buttons on the cash register.


"What's the matter with you, boy? Did your parents not teach you the language of your ancestors. Are you too ashamed to speak Fugwoyu?" There were many people like the man in front of him in Little Akarea, mainly of the older generation, who found pride in refusing to learn either language of the federation, stubbornly clinging to the old ways and the old tongue. They had always seemed like idiots to Markus, stupid old farts who couldn't get used to change.

"I prefer to 入乡随俗, follow the ways of the local people when I enter a village. Will that be cash or card?" Markus replied in Akarean, using a traditional idiom familiar to most in Akarea, with what some would call a shit-eating grin on his face. The man's face turned as red as Mrs. Soong's sour and spicy cabbage soup.

"Is that how you talk to your elders? Where are your manners?" The man was visibly fuming. Dr. Soong had poked his head out of the kitchen, hearing the commotion. As soon as he saw what was happening, he put on his best apologetic smile.

"I'm so sorry, sir, my boy does not know his place. I have not taught him well, and I deeply beg for your forgiveness." He offered, bowing and holding out an open hand in apology. "Would I be able to make it up to you by offering you a 50% discount?"

"Discipline this boy. He has lost the ways of his people. You'll have no business from me until he learns his place." The man stormed out of the restaurant, almost ripping the door off of its hinges. As soon as the man was out of sight, Dr. Soong's apologetic smile vanished, and he whacked Markus on the head with his open palm.

"Foolish boy! What have I told you before about being respectful to your elders? Have you gone deaf, ah?" He slapped Markus across the face. "Don't even think about going out this weekend. Your insolence is going to cost us our business." He slapped Markus again.

"It's not my fault that I can think for myself, old man." Markus snapped back. "He understood what I was saying just fine, he was just being an Arschloch. I don't care how old and grey he is." It was Dr. Soong's turn to turn red.

"Don't you get lippy with me. I'm taking your phone for the week." He held out his hand. "Hand it over."

"In your dreams, you wrinkly shit. I work my ass off at school and down here, and this is how you thank me? You don't even pay me, for Eostre's sake. How about you get your act together?" Dr. Soong exploded.

"You think you can talk to me like this, ah? I brought you to this country and I work from dusk till dawn to put rice on the table. You think you know what hard work is? You think it's easy, raising a sorry excuse of a son like you?" A flurry of punches and smacks came Markus's way. He could feel tears pooling in his eyes as he raised his arms in defence. Of late Dr. Soong's temper had become more and more volatile, with business at the Golden Dragon at an all-time low.

"I'll go to the police and you'll never see the light of day again. I'm not a diaper-shitting three year old, nor am I your dog to boss around. It's about time you treated me that way." Markus said in defiance.

"Go ahead, go to the police, who will pay for your meals, ah? Where will you live? You think you're so tough? You don't know a thing about the real world. You're a green boy who thinks he's hot shit because he attends a fancy Gymnasium."

"Fuck you. Once the army take me, I'm not coming back." Markus grabbed his pen and his mathematics notebook and stormed away from the cash register, making for their apartment.

"Get back here, you stupid turtle! I swear by the Emperor I'm going to smash that phone of yours. Worthless little ingrate, you-" Markus slammed the door separating the apartment building and the restaurant shut. He stomped upstairs and ripped the door of their apartment open, to find his mother sitting at the dining room table, startled.

"What's wrong, Tan-yue? Where's your father?" She looked up from the Kanadiaans language textbook she was studying diligently.

"Shut up, I don't want to talk." Markus snarled back, going into his room and locking the door. He dumped his notebook and pen on the desk overflowing with books and schoolwork, shaking and panting in rage and fury.

He grabbed the nearest thing he could find, an old hockey stick, and broke it in half over his knee, and used one end of the stick to push his laptop and all the books and papers off of his desk, scattering them across the floor. He grabbed his backpack, unzipped it, and dumped its contents over the sea of books and papers that had become the floor of his room as well. His heart still racing, he pulled out the bottom drawer on his nightstand, where he had kept six or seven stacks of ten- and twenty-thaler notes, as well as a few coins and a stray fifty, the fruits of his labour. He threw the banknotes into his now-empty backpack and stuffed the coins in his pocket, and pulled out the drawer on top of that to grab his Candanadian and Akarean passports as well as a fake driver's licence that he had bought in secret when he was fifteen that listed his name as the 20-year-old Francis Wong of Fischerfurt. He had used the licence to get into a few bars and other places that were off limits to the average Candanadian fifteen-year-old, but he had never thought it could come in handy again. He tore his cellphone charger out of the socket and tossed it in his bag as well, as well as a few balled-up shirts, trousers, socks, and undergarments. The last thing he took was two packets of crackers and his half-full water bottle. Now, he was ready to do what he wanted to do. Before he left, however, he threw the chair before his desk at the window, instantly shattering the dirty glass. The chair landed with a loud crack on the pavement beneath, three of its four legs snapping cleanly in half.

He opened his wallet and looked through the contents. He had his Harschburg transit card, his student ID, his real driver's licence, as well as his library card and a five-thaler bill. He snapped it shut again and raised the hood on his jacket, storming out of the apartment, leaving his mother speechless and stunned. He practically ran downstairs and slammed the door to his apartment building shut while hailing a taxi that happened to be passing by, which promptly came to a halt outside the restaurant, giving him a clear view of his father's fuming face. He gave his father one last obscene gesture with a triumphant smirk on his face before hopping in the taxi.

"Where-" Markus interrupted the taxi driver before he could even finish his question.

"The train station. As fast as you can." He said while folding up his student ID and driver's licence and throwing them out the window.

At last, Markus Soong was free.
When Markus Soong boarded the 6:35 CandRail West-East Corridor service at Harschburg's Zentralebahnhof, he'd pictured a journey filled with colourful characters, enticing encounters, debauchery, revelry, and general excitement. This was going to be his introduction to the rest of the world, and he was going to have the time of his life.


What he didn't expect, however, was to find himself cowering in a freight car nestled between two boxes in the 35th hour of his epic voyage. The ticket he had bought at the Zentralebahnhof was the cheapest one available, and it gave him a seat in 2nd class to a village named Kleinhugel-on-Tref, 100 kilometres from Fischerfurt. Of course, that was never his intended destination, but it would only set him back a modest fifteen thalers. His plan had gotten off to a good start, until a burly Caskhomirian came aboard at Fischerfurt with a ticket for a seat that he thought was empty. Markus had told the man that he had read the carriage number on his ticket wrong, but the man wasn't convinced and asked to see his ticket. Markus bolted on to the platform and made a beeline for the train at the opposite end of the platform, which was just about to pull out of the station. Fortunately, the Caskhomirian nor the fare inspectors had caught up to him, but there was no doubt that he had been seen by the station's security cameras.


It was bound to be a long voyage. The minutes turned into hours, and the hours into days, and without the ability to peer outside of the cramped, dusty freight carriage, Markus had no idea where he was nor where he would end up. For all he knew, he could be in Trefjall, Belkhomir, Caskhomir, or in the wild lands beyond the reach of the Candanadian Crown, or any crown for that matter. He had precious little in terms of water and food, and it took all his might to stop himself from taking any more of a sip of water or a nibble of a cracker. Sometimes he heard the rumble and roar of another freight train, sometimes a high-speed train zoomed past, sometimes he could hear the chirping of larks and droning of cicadas, sometimes voices speaking softly in foreign tongues, sometimes the groan of machinery. Every minute felt like a lifetime, and soon his life in Harschburg became a distant memory. The Golden Dragon, the Kanadiaans Gymnasium, Little Akarea, they had all faded into obscurity. His new world was this carriage of crates and boxes, this dark little hell on a train bound for nowhere. His legs were cramping up, as he hadn't had the chance to move them since the chase at Fischerfurt Station. He had stopped peering through a slit in the door, as gazing at the light hurt his eyes. The sounds and smells of the outside world were foreign to him, and in silence, he sat, cramped, waiting.


It had felt like eons before the train rolled to another halt. The same voices talked in foreign tongues, the same machines stirred themselves to life, but this time, there was something else going on. The voices came closer and closer, until he could hear a clanking, then a creak. All of a sudden, the world he had known was gone. Brilliant, blinding light filled every corner of his freight carriage, and he cried out, in surprise and in pain. The voices grew even closer. He saw a face. Then another. Two shaggy men with beards. They babbled on, gazing at him with looks of concern. He worked hard to understand, then realized that they were speaking in a tongue unfamiliar to him. He searched for words.


"Wo... where..." He managed, shielding himself from the light with his hand and recoiling in fear. The faces continued to speak in the alien language. He tried again. "Where am I?"


"Ach, Kanadiaans?" One of the faces replied. He scrunched his face, as if trying to remember something, then replied. "Nein Kanadiaans. Oseanisch oder Caskaans?" Markus tried harder to remember Oseanian.


"What is this place? Where am I?" He managed.


"Hekkedorp, Northern District, Caskhomir. On the border with Oseania." The face replied in a heavily accented voice. "I need you to explain where you came from and why you were inside that train."
"Caskhomir? That... That can't be right." Markus was at a loss for words.

"I don't know what to tell you. This is Caskhomir." The man tapped a lion decal on the hardhat he wore. "Did you lock yourself in there?"

"No. Wait, no, I mean, yes. I, uh, I fell asleep while loading this train. I just need to get back to..." He tried to visualize a map in his head. "Luddishaven."

"Luddishaven, you say?" The man looked as if he didn't believe him. "Het hierdie trein stopgesit om Luddishawe?" He asked his equally burly friend, who pulled out a small notebook from his high-vis jacket, flipped to a page, and scrunched his eyebrows.

"Luddishawe... Ja, maar net vir vyf minute."  Markus didn't know what the man said, but he heard the word Ja.

"See, I wasn't lying. If you could just put me on the next train to Oseania-" The man with the lion decal on his helmet raised a finger.

"He says the train only stopped at Luddishaven for five minutes."

"Uhhh... Yes. That's correct." Crap, thought Markus.

"You hear me correctly, yes? Five minutes."

"Yes."

"In five minutes, you load this train and fall asleep?"

"Yes."

"Ag, whatever, man. Get out. I don't want to see you around here." The man made a shooing motion with his hand and stepped aside. Markus grabbed his backpack and leapt from the freight car onto the platform. He suddenly realized that it was unbearably hot, and he peeled off the jacket he had worn in Harschburg, balled it up, and tossed it in a nearby trash can. He had never been this far south, but he had been to a few small villages around Harschburg, and knew roughly what to expect. Hekkedorp's train station featured a single raised platform with a closed convenience kiosk in the middle, so Markus made for the main station building, where he hoped to find a place where he could get some actual food that wasn't crackers and water. The station building looked like it came straight out of the 60s, a block of solid grey cement with sharp angles and extremely unpleasant to look at, but to Markus, it was salvation. he pushed the creaky double doors open and found that the inside was dimly lit, with a ticket kiosk in one corner, a newsstand in the other, as well as a small cafe. He made for the cafe, but suddenly realized that his thalers were worthless here. Cursing under his breath, he went up to the newsstand with a spectacled man behind it.

"Guetendag. Sprechen Sie Kanadiaans?" Markus hoped he wouldn't have to use his Oseanian again. The man looked up from the hunting magazine he was reading and pushed the brim of his blaze orange cap up slightly to peer down at Markus. 

"'Ein bietjie, uh, bisschen." This man's accent was thicker than the lens of his glasses, but at least he spoke Kanadiaans. "How can I help?"

"I'm looking to exchange some thalers for..." He couldn't remember what the Caskhomirian currency was called nor what the exchange rate was, and he was too tired to care. "Your money." The man looked slightly confused, so Markus took out his stack of twenty-thaler bills and placed it on the counter. "Exchange?"

"Ach, okay. You want rand for thalers?"

"Ja."  The man picked up the stack Markus left on the counter and began counting them methodically, muttering under his breath. 

"One hundred eighty thalers." He took out a pocket-sized calculator and punched in a few numbers. "Five thousand four hundred and fifty rand." He took out a wad of paper bills, unlike the Candanadian thalers Markus had given him, which were of polymer. He placed down five green thousand-rand bills, then two red two-hundred rand bills, and finally five copper coins. 

"Danke sehr." Markus picked up the pile and went over to the cafe. He knew the man likely ripped him off, but that was the least of his concerns.
If Little Akarea was hell for Markus Soong, then Hekkedorp, the diminuitive Caskhomirian village he had found himself in at the end of his epic journey across Candanadium as a stowaway, was the innermost circle of hell. The village, what the locals called a town, was mostly rows upon rows of identical drab apartment blocks, all grey concrete and cloudy, cheap glass windows, plastic plants and laundry dangling from the tiny balconies, from which occasionally also hung a Caskhomirian flag or the flag of a local sports team or other. It seemed that grey was the colour of choice for generic Caskhomirian suburbia. The mighty River Cask, the lifeblood of northern Caskhomir and the only reason the north of Caskhomir wasn't a desert, like the south, bisected the village, cutting it in half from west to east. Here, however, the mighty Cask was little more than a trickle, at least in the dry season, and the trickle was, more often than not, drowned out by the constant stream of refuse and sewage that emptied straight from the town's underground system to the river, giving the entire riverside section a stench that could only be described as being similar to the smell of a freshly cured jar of hakarl. 

All in all, the town looked as if it had never escaped the troubles of Caskhomir in the 1960s, and the same could be said for its inhabitants. The Hekkedorpers were greybeards and miserable old widows that filled the bars and restaurants every evening with their monotonous conversation that turned to drunken hoots and hollers when the game was on and the beer flowed. The young people, Markus had learned, had all gone to look for work or Education in Golding, Port Cask, or across the "soft" border in the rest of Candanadium. Trash piled in the streets, and one had to watch their step if they didn't want to step on a used needle that would give them some nasty infection or equally nasty STD. 

The only outsiders here were the refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and stateless persons that formed a permanent camp outside the small checkpoint on the border between the town and its Oseanian counterpart, Heckerford. Most of these were ethnic Oseanians and Caskaans who lived outside the Kingdom's southeastern border, though occasionally there was news of Alpenraumers in the mix as well, playing themselves off as stateless to gain fast track entry to Candanadium. Recently, they had been joined by a contingent of Meltorian refugees, waiting for their documents to be processed by the federal government. The reasoning behind this, of course, was because of Caskhomir's historic leniency when it came to ganting entry to asylum seekers, stateless persons, or any other people from beyond the Cask mountains to bolster its workforce and to provide a ready stream of low-skilled labour. Though Caskhomir was lenient, the federation as a whole did not, and even so, illegal border crossers in Caskhomir were often liable to be shot by some boer if they were spotted trespassing on his land. The Federal Constabulary could do nothing, owing to their already limited and often controversial jurisdiction in Caskhomir, as Caskhomir was prescribed additional autonomy over its policing and border policy under the Candanadian constitution. The Candanadian Rangers weren't much of a help in the matter either, being overworked and understaffed as always. Thus, the envious job of cleaning up the towns and patrolling the borders was left to the reserves of the Royal Caskhomir Regiment and the Caskhomir State Police, which, at best, could be described as incompetent. In Caskhomir, money was what called the shots, and with the right amount of money in the right amount of hands, anything could, theoretically, be arranged. 

It didn't take long for Markus Soong to learn that fact. Though, regrettably, money was something he did not have a great surplus of, he had learned to make his modest pile of thalers last much longer than it should have. He realized early on that he should not have exchanged his thalers for rand, as with the amount of traffic over the internal border to Oseania, thalers were often in high demand and were accepted at higher rates than the official peg of forty rand to the thaler. Markus had suspected that there was more at play behind the scenes, but he also knew to keep his mouth shut and his nose out of places where it didn't belong. His stay in Hekkedorp was turning out to be quite the prolonged affair. It had been almost two weeks since he hopped off the cargo train he had smuggled himself here on, though this wasn't to say that Hekkedorp was growing on him. Far from it. He hated it all, from the strip mall in the centre of town filled with soulless shops to the derelict auto plant by the town's limits. Hekkedorp was a place without a future, a dying town, in the final throes of life, entirely unsuitable for someone whose life had barely begun.

"It wasn't always like this, you know." The greybeards at the bar would always say to him, clucking their tongues. "Back when the republic was still around, this was the gate to the industrial heartland of Caskhomir. It's in the name." Though the town was named after the fact that it was the gate to Golding, nowadays it served more as a gate out of Caskhomir than anything else. Still, though, the Hekkedorpers clung onto their nowhere lives in the sorry excuse for a town they had. And Markus had had enough.

There were always odd jobs that needed to be done around town. Waiting tables and scrubbing dishes at the diners, manning the checkout lanes at the one Kronus store in town, helping the local State Police detachment hand out parking violation tickets - Markus jumped at all the opportunities. He had picked up some Caskaans, nothing fancy, but he could greet someone and bid them farewell or call their mother a cunt - all the necessities of life, and this had helped greatly. Though most Hekkedorpers spoke Oseanian by virtue of being ethnically Oseanian themselves, it was absolutely helpful to know Caskaans in Caskhomir, as most of the bureaucrats and cops came from other places in the region, and an illegal immigrant like Markus certainly needed to stay on their good side. He was saving up for a car, anything with wheels, really, that could give him the freedom to go where he liked. The fake licence belonging to Francis Wong of Fischerfurt helped as well, since it's what everyone in Hekkedorp knew him as. The kid from Fischerstaat.

Markus didn't know where he'd go once he could leave Hekkedorp. Maybe he'd head east, to Port Cask, the oldest city in all of Candanadium, or south to see Golding, and further south to Freigrad, straddling the border between Kaltach civilization and the lands beyond the reach of the Crown, where only the Candanadian Rangers dared to venture. He couldn't leave the country legally - both his passports still identified him by his real name, and there was no doubt that his parents had filed a missing person's report with the Federal Constabulary back in Harschburg. He wondered if that would catch up with him in Caskhomir, but so far, it seemed that he was safe.

Caskhomir is big enough for me, he thought to himself. I'll have plenty of time to explore the place.

The youth hostel Markus was staying at didn't get a lot of guests this time of year. Nobody stays in Hekkedorp overnight, unless they've missed their train or their bus or if their car broke down. The owner, a middle-aged Caskaans lady named Patricia, didn't seem to mind the lack of business. She spent most of her time stoned out of her mind, gazing at the ceiling from behind her thick, round glasses, leaving Markus to his own devices. Everyone in town seemed to have a different tale on where she'd come from. Some said that she was a former Sister of the Lady who had changed her mind after taking her vows. Others said that she came from over the sea, from Edofasia or Alayka, and more would say that she grew up in Hekkedorp and that there was nothing special about her. All the stories agreed, however, that she spent most of her youth bumbling around with a band of long-haired young men in a beaten up minibus that took them from the Cape to Alpenraum. Either way, Markus didn't pry. As long as his rent of 1000 rand per week didn't go up, he paid her no mind, except when she felt like sharing some of her THC-induced wisdom with him.

"The Eternal City", she'd said once, while Markus was trying to watch the news in the small common area of the hostel. She'd sprawled herself out obver the couches in the corner, staring intensely at the ceiling tiles.

"Hm?" Markus had grunted, not paying her much mind.

"That's where you ought to be. The Eternal City. The city of the five roses. For lost souls like you." She had said in her sing-songy Caskaans accent.

"You mean the one in Alpenraum? Why on earth would I go there?"

"Trust me. I know." She dozed off shortly after that, and Markus didn't think too much of it.

Now, however, as he bounced south along Regional Highway 22 in the beige 1977 OMW P-Wagen pickup he'd picked up for 30 000 rand, he found his mind returning to those words.

The Eternal City. Maybe it really was the place for him.

The sign read 1100 kilometres to the border.