Strangers


Kon felt his little sister's hand tighten in his as they approached the stall. A muscled man with a large sack thrown over one shoulder thwacked into him as he pushed through the market crowd.

"Watch where you're going!" Mio shouted after him "nice people think of others!"

Kon yanked on her hand and darted into the bustle around the fruit vendor's stall. "Hey," he hissed whilst peeking over the top "don't yell at guys like that, OK?"

"But he was being bad."

"He was five times the size of me! Didn't you see the gang tattoos on his arms?"

"But he wasn't very nice to you."

"That doesn't matter! Come on!"

He pulled her to her feet and tugged her through the stalls before she could get him into any more trouble. Sunlight filtered through the canvas awnings and turned the air bright colours. Among the noise and babble, a thin scratching sound rose above their heads and the smell of coriander.

"You don't confront people who look like that," Kon explained, dragging her behind like a balloon. "You go out of your way to keep them from noticing you."

"But why?"

"Did you notice how rough he looked? The scars he had? There are a lot of people like that around and they won't refrain from hurting you just because you're a little girl. So do what I say, OK?"

"OK." Mio pointed to a man by the side of the jeweller's booth. "Like him?"

Kon winced when he saw the bandaging around the man's chin and his colourful eye. "Exactly. Hey – maybe we shouldn't do this today, if there are people like that hanging around Mrs Anhaft's place."

Mio looked up at him with eyes full of betrayal. "But you promised!"

He grunted and gave the man leaning against the wall a second glance. Mrs Anhaft's booth was nudged up against the stone wall of the town hall and the tall, crooked stranger had installed himself into the corner, violin case open at his feet. The most god-awful noise whined from the strings he was torturing with long fingers.

Reluctantly, Kon admitted to himself that the guy didn't look too bad. Maybe he'd had one too many and said something stupid to a drinking buddy. He didn't look like he had the balls for anything darker.

He gave the guy a cautious nod as they approached, getting a doofy grin in return. The man winced as the movement pulled his battered skin.

"Come on, Mio," he said, pulling her hand as she dawdled behind. She looked up at him uncertainly.

"Oh no. Don't flake out on me now. You said you wanted it done. To look pretty for Aunt Ena's wedding."

"But it hurts, doesn't it."

Kon shrugged. "How would I know?"

Mio stepped up to the counter and gave the rack of gold earrings a covetous look. She looked back up at her brother with big brown eyes full of uncertainty.

"Ah, give her a moment," advised the large Mrs Anhaft from behind her booth. "You can't rush a woman in her decisions, young man."

"You're lucky I'm not in a hurry," Kon grumbled, sticking his hands in his pockets and wandering over to the violinist. "Just choose some you like, OK? Not the expensive ones. And you," he said to the stranger "are the worst violinist I've heard in my life. No offence. Also, you don't look like you're too hot a fighter, either."

"I fell down the stairs," the man said cheerfully.

"Right."

"I managed to lose all my money too. All I have left is this one coin." He held it up proudly.

"Hey, don't wave the cash around. This place is full of thieves. Listen, if you really need money, you should get people to pay you to stop playing that thing. You'd make a fortune."

"Kon! Can I get these ones?"

"What are they?" he yelled over his shoulder. Mio was holding something sparkly up.

"Rubies!"

"Not on your life! Choose something cheap!"

"But-"

"No buts! My little sister," he said, jerking one thumb over his shoulder. "Mom works all day so I get to babysit her. And before you ask, no I wouldn't pay you to do it for me. You don't exactly look like the safest guy around."

"I know." the man blinked at him from behind his glasses.

"You want to make some serious money, you should go after that guy Methuselah. He's got a pretty big bounty on his head." Kon leant agaisnt the wall and tugged his belt straight. "He's been spotted inside the town, too. Wonder where he's hiding. For all I know I've walked straight past him already."

"Heh..."

"Hey, how long you been propping up this wall for?"

"Just today. But I'm taking a wall-propping tour around the country."

Kon nodded. "Yeah, a lot of people like that nowadays. No work around. Still, watching the world go by, you must have seen some pretty interesting things in your time."

"You could say that."

"How old are you, anyway?"

"Well, eh..."

"Kon!"

"What, Mio?"

"I've changed my mind!" his sister came flying across the square and pulled at his sleeve. "it looks like it's really going to hurt!"

"Huh? You don't want it done? But it's all you've been talking about for weeks."

Mio yanked his sleeve but cast a sorrowful look back at the jewellery shop.

Kon groaned and raked a hand through his hair. "Mio, you can't just run away from everything as soon as you're scared it might hurt or be tough, you know? Life doesn't work that way. Just sit there and let Mrs Anhaft do it and it'll be over in a few minutes. And everyone will say how pretty you look at the wedding tomorrow."

Mio turned her big eyes upwards. Her bottom lip was wobbling.

"Aww, Mio..."

The stranger looked from Kon to his sister and back again. He beamed.

"It doesn't hurt," he said.

"How do you know?"

"Watch," he said, and bent in three to put his violin back in its case. He adjusted his hat to a jaunty angle and strode towards the jewellery stall.

"Hello!" he said "Mrs Anhaft, I presume?"

She eyed him suspiciously. "Yes?"

"I'd like to get my ears pierced, please."

She put her hands on her hips. "You wasting my time, young man?"

He held up a coin. "This is all I have. What can I get?"

"Hey!" Kon protested. "You can't spend all your money on some stupid earrings."

The man plopped himself down on the stool behind the counter, his body bent at sharp angles. He leaned to the side so Mrs Anhaft could reach his head.

"It takes certain sacrifices," he said in a voice of great solemnity. "to look this beautiful."

"Are you ready?" asked Mrs Anhaft, brandishing a small hand-opened spike gun. "You'd better shut up and stay still if you want these to be even."

Mio squeaked and held tight to Kon's hand, scrunching up her face.

There was a click.

"Wow! Was that it?" the man leapt from the chair, his arms outspread and his face split by a massive grin. "But that didn't hurt at all! I feel fantastic! I could take over the world!"

"Sit down, you idiot," said Mrs Anhaft, seizing his sleeve and dragging him back onto the stool. "I've got to do the other one as well."

"Really?" said Mio, sticking her head out from behind her brother's back. "It doesn't hurt?"

"Not at all," the stranger said gravely. "And I'm a complete wimp. I cry when I get kneaded by cats."

Mio blinked at him, then looked up at Kon. "The jade ones," she said, locking her gaze with his. "On the second row. Mrs Anhaft knows which ones."

Ignoring the woman's gentle chuckles, he forked over the money – which was a lot more than their mother had given them but he had a little extra left over from his wages at the dumpling shop – and lifted Mio onto the stool.

"See," the man said, pushing back his long pale hair and showing the girl the silver hoops in his ears. "Not a drop of blood."

"Pretty," she said. "I think your girlfriend will like them."

"Ah. I don't have a girlfriend."

"I'll be your girlfriend. I like you."

"Mio!"

As the stranger was waving goodbye and surreptitiously rubbing one earlobe, Kon grabbed him and dragged him over. "Hey, you didn't have to do that. What are you playing at?"

"Do what?"

"Spend the last of your money on a pair of stupid earrings. To stop my baby sister being scared."

He fingered one hoop. "Never underestimate the power of accessorising."

Kon gnashed his teeth. "What kind of guy throws away all he's got on making a little kid feel better?"

The stranger looked down at him. Kon's face was reflected in his glasses, wavering and split by bars of light.

"One that's spent too much time being afraid," he said.

Kon stared for a moment, then broke his gaze away. "Let me repay you," he said, adding in his head how much that would cost and wincing.

"No," the man said. "Take care of your sister."

He nodded and turned, coat flapping behind. Kon watched him go until a man with a basket full of fish crashed into his back. He finished apologising and turned back, rubbing his head. He was gone.

"Kon, Kon!" Mio came running through the crowd and threw her arms around his waist. "It didn't hurt but it kind of did but it's fine and look aren't they pretty?"

"Yeah...it looks good, Mio."

"Do you think I can get a handsome boyfriend now?"

"He'll have to get through me first."

She looked around. "Where'd the nice violin man go? I wanted to show him my earrings."

Kon took her hand. "He had to go home. Like we do."

"Is his family waiting for him."

He curled his fingers tight around her smaller ones. "Yeah. Somewhere, someone's waiting for him."