Yosef stared up at the stars every night. He did not know what they were or why they shone whenever the sun’s light went out. It was one of those unanswerable questions like: where does the snow go during the summer? Although ignorant, Yosef loved that he could see the shimmering dots with such clarity in Carmarthen’s dark sky.
“Hey, boy! Get yourself in here this moment!”
Sighing, Yosef picked himself off the ground and brushed off the nubs of grass his clothing had gathered onto itself. Making Master wait never ended well. A good ear boxing seemed the man’s favored method of discipline, but he had a way of inventing new tortures that baffled the mind and battered the body. Especially when he was drunk.
“Yes, Master?” Yosef bowed at the waist as per expectations. A lock of his curly black hair tickled his nose.
Master stood from his dining table, swiping a stained napkin from under his chin. The man’s ratty, tangled gray beard reached down to his chest. His belly could have been a kettle drum if it were not so gelatinous. Despite Master’s flabby exterior, he possessed a strength Yosef’s face knew all too well.
“You were out there again, weren’t you?”
Yosef shrugged. “Should I have been—”
“Do not interrupt, pup.” Master lifted his arm as if to backhand the boy. He sneered when he saw Yosef shuddering. “It is your duty to see to my needs. Do I need to find a hair in my venison?”
Shaking his head, Yosef wished his hair were not so long. “No. Of course not. I’m sorry master. Please. It won’t happen again.”
“It most certainly will not.” Master lifted his flagon, peered inside, and slammed it back on the table. “Though it seems you cannot do a single thing right, can you? Why do you allow my thirst to go unquenched? Pour, boy!”
Yosef wished he were not such a poor boy. Or, rather, he wished his family had not been thus. If they could have afforded to feed themselves and him, Master would not be his master. He could have apprenticed with a far kinder man. Perhaps the town scribe or tanner. They had always been the reputable sort. But when Master had appeared on his parent’s doorstep with a money sack that rattled some, they had been all too eager to part ways with Yosef.
He poured amber ale into Master’s flagon, dripping a miniscule amount on the table. Master snatched his drink and imbibed until echoes of his slurping announced the mug’s emptiness. Yosef repeated the process, hoping his efforts to keep Master happy would not fuel an unprovoked raging.
“Boy, go get the book off the stand.” Master pointed with a finger that knew the general direction with the weary certainty of drunkenness.
There was no point in asking which book Master meant. The man knew how to read, but he placed value in only one book. Leather-bound and heavy as a watermelon, the tome looked as if it could have held the entirety of humanity’s wisdom. Yosef wished those were the contents as wisdom might have improved Master’s disposition. But no. If there was one thing Master repelled, it was wisdom.
Once Yosef had succeeded at lugging Master’s book onto the table, he stood back a few paces out of Master’s reach. He watched the man leaf through pages with reckless, graceless hands that grabbed the corners as if he wished to tear through the linen paper. When he found the right page, Master’s grubby finger trailed beneath the words as his eyes squinted. Halfway through reading, Master fell into the book and began snoring. He sounded like a wolf growling at treed prey.
Yosef shook his head and pinched his nose. He grabbed the flagon away so that no traces of ale could stain Master’s precious book. Master would blame him for anything awry whether it made sense or not, and a splotch on the page would infuriate the man more than an empty tankard. Wondering whether he should also take the book back to its proper place, Yosef glanced down at the less obstructed page. The letters were nothing but a scribbled mess to him.
He lifted Master’s arm out of the way. The man’s hot breaths stank of stale alcohol and rotting cheese. Yosef scooted the book away before Master could roll back on top of it. To his surprise, the squiggles on this page made sense.
Escape from your suffering in a snap.
Recite these words while Master takes his nap.
Posterum incognita exquiro.
Forget your world to become the hero.
Before he realized that he had spoken the words aloud, a bright, blue disc of light engulfed Yosef. Only the light’s sudden disappearance rivaled its arrival. As soon as Yosef stepped out of the ethereal light, he found himself with enormous structures surrounding him. He could not tell where the sky began and the towers ended.
Despite the late hour the full moon evinced, he could not see the stars. He feared they may have fallen out of the sky or ceased displaying their magnificence. Just as Yosef raised a finger to scratch his head and ponder the question, a blaring horn sounded in his ear.
“Hey, buddy! Get your ass out of the road!” The screaming woman sat inside a metallic box on wheels. The box put out a dense fog that choked Yosef.
Yosef did not spot a donkey anywhere and wondered how he could help this perturbed woman. If she were seeing animals that did not exist, perhaps a leeching would be beneficial. On the other hand, perhaps he had been looking in the wrong direction. Stray donkeys in the road often caused delays for the regency as they journeyed from city to city.
When Yosef scampered to find the offending beast of burden, the metallic box spun its wheels and screeched as it sped away. “Moron!”
More on what? Clearly, she was disturbed in the head. Yosef noticed the incomprehensible woman’s metal box was not the only one sending up noxious fumes. It seemed the whole world had altered for the sole purpose of accommodating these mechanical monsters. They varied in size and color, but they all lacked a trait that might have given Yosef a better impression of this new world order. These boxes quarantined the user from life, and the people within appeared satisfied with that separation.
“Look at his clothes! Dude! The Renaissance Fair moved on months ago.”
Yosef did not know what a Renaissance was, but he did not believe in taking clothing advise from a man twice his age who dressed in flashy, immodest rags. You can see more than half his legs.
After an hour of aimless walking through this choking, smoggy city, Yosef’s stomach began to rumble. He reached into his coin purse and smiled when he felt a few florins. He stopped outside a window and peered in to see people eating two meals’ worth in one sitting. Yosef entered through the door, jumping as a beeping tone startled him.
“Welcome to Burger Bum. We’ll be with you in a moment!” Yosef could not see who spoke, but the voice sounded annoyed, contrary to what he expected from a gracious host.
The dining establishment smelled of boiling oil and salt. So much salt. Yosef wondered if he were close to the ocean. If not, then the owner of the business must be wealthy to import so many spices. I hope they won’t turn away a mere apprentice.
Yosef stepped up to the counter. “Hello. Would you happen to have a kidney bean pie and some oats? I assure you I can pay for it.”
The tall girl standing behind the cashbox gave him a stare most would have reserved for a madman. Considering how many gold rings pierced her eyebrow, Yosef thought she would have been accustomed to anything peculiar. “Uh, this is a Burger Bum. Don’t you want a burger?”
To Yosef, the word sounded like an odd name for someone living in a village. He leaned forward on the counter and whispered, “Wouldn’t that be cannibalism?”
“Only if you’re a cow.”
Gaping at the girl, Yosef counted out his florins. There was no way he could afford to buy a cow with such meager funds. “What could I get with these?”
The girl narrowed her eyes at the gold coins as if unfamiliar with their worth. “Uh, sir? Are you from another country or something?”
“It certainly feels that way. Nothing around here is familiar.”
“New in town, huh?” The girl whipped her head about as if making sure no one was watching. “I’ll tell you what. Dinner’s on me just this once.”
“It’s on you?” Yosef could not see any food on her body anywhere.
“Sure. Keep your coins. Maybe you can trade them for real money at a pawn shop.” The girl’s fingers danced on a screen attached to the cashbox. “I’m not really supposed to do this, so don’t tell anyone.”
Not sure of what had just transpired, Yosef waited at the counter until the girl handed him a gleaming yellow tray with curious-looking food. She called the round lump wrapped in paper a “double cheeseburger” and named the tall, crispy things “fries.” He smiled and thanked the girl for her generous gift before taking the tray to a table where two other people ate similar items.
“Hey! We’re eating here!” The man shoved at Yosef.
“Yes, I saw that. I thought perhaps you would want company.”
“There’s a table for you over there. Leave my girl and I alone!”
Yosef turned in the direction of the abrasive man’s pointing finger. “But it’s empty.”
“Exactly. Piss off!”
Once again, these people’s phrases left Yosef’s mind circling as he attempted to comprehend their meaning. Why would the man demand privacy in a place where so many shared the space? How could he speak about urine in front of a girl he intended to court? And what was the urine off of?
At his lonely table, Yosef unwrapped his double cheeseburger. A red substance leaked out from beneath the squishy bread and splattered his rough-spun tunic. Uncertain of what to expect, he lifted the food to his mouth and took a tiny bite. In all his years, Yosef had never tasted beef before, and now he wanted to have nothing else ever again. The meat’s juices ran down his throat. The chef had managed to combine so many unfamiliar tastes into such a small masterpiece, and Yosef could not wait for an encore.
As he finished the cheeseburger, Yosef watched the girl with the eyebrow rings walking over to his table. “How was everything?”
Yosef wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “These were the best victuals ever to touch my lips. My life will never be the same again.”
She giggled. “It’s only a burger. We serve millions of them every day. Quadrillions if you include international chains.”
Millions? What are those? “Would you sit with me a moment? I don’t usually eat alone.”
The girl shrugged before taking a seat opposite Yosef. “Why not? I can take my break now. So what’s your deal?”
“Deal? I don’t sell anything.”
Her ring-bedecked eyebrow raised half an inch. “You wear unusual clothing, try to buy food with money unlike any I’ve ever seen, and until recently had no idea what a burger is. What’s your story? Who are you?”
At last, a question he could answer. “My name is Yosef of Carmarthen. Though I’m originally from a village two miles away from Carmarthen, but you probably haven’t heard of it.”
“Nice to meet you, Yosef. Mine is Charise. I’m not sure I’ve heard of Carmarthen.”
“It is a beautiful place. Everything is lovely there except—”
Charise munched on a fry. “Except what?”
“I always look up at the stars at night there. And they’re so magnificent to gaze upon. I just wish Master understood my need to study their brilliance.”
“Wait. Master?” She brushed grains of salt off her hands with a napkin. “Are you a slave, Yosef?”
“Slave?” Yosef chuckled at the notion. “No. I work for Master. He’s training me to take over for him when I’m old enough. My parents sold me into the apprenticeship when I was a small lad.”
“Your parents what?” Her breaths sounded heavy. “Yosef, this can’t be right.”
“Well, I wish they had sold me to someone else, but Master offered enough for them to eat for a month. And I’ll have a reasonable skillset once I’ve learned everything I need to. If Master doesn’t beat me to death first.”
Every word Yosef uttered seemed to pain Charise, as if his tongue had the power to cut wounds into her soul. Perhaps my view of the world makes as much sense to her as hers does to me. Then a topic sprung to mind that could do no damage. “Charise, do you ever wonder what stars are made of?”
Charise took the last fry and ripped it in half. “Can’t say that I have. If I ever want to know something like that, I just search it on the Internet.”
Yosef’s face twisted. It sounded like she wanted to go fishing, but that idea did not fit in with the conversation.
“You do know what the Internet is, right?” The girl took out a rectangular box and pressed a button on the side. The screen illuminated with a picture. With several swiping motions, she changed the image so that Yosef could see a photograph of a star. “It says here that stars are made of very hot gases. Hydrogen. Helium. Others too.”
“And this magic box holds all the answers to life’s questions?”
Charise smirked. “Not yet. But you can find almost every piece of information you want to know. Why?”
“Could you look up Master on that thing? I want to know if he’s going to punish me for reading his spell book.”
“Uh, sure. What’s his name?”