An odd quintet crossed the market square in the old city.
Xaid Singh, a native Indian from Calcutta, led his classmates through the throng. A charismatic young man, his chubby frame could be found at the center of any social occasion. He was accompanied by close friend, Dawlish Zultan, a giant, brooding Turk from the Persian Empire. Unlike his classmates, Dawlish attended Delhi University to prepare for a military career. His uncle was the defense minister and Dawlish was expected to replace him one day.
They were joined by a new friend from Egypt, Salaam Sarkis, a nervous second year from Thebes. The diminutive Egyptian boy scuttled about, eager to please his older classmates, cowering if anyone paid direct attention to him. Angkor and Grrrscnk brought up the rear. Grrrscnk, now at full grown Hecht, seven feet tall with a four-foot tail lashing back and forth as she strode through the crowd. None but the bravest being would say anything to the toothy alien. She was only matched in height by Dawlish and her sleek feathers were a stunning white, intermixed with amber and opal stripes.
Delhi was a modern city, the jewel of Pan Asia. The largest of all the Asian metropolises to survive the wars of the Third Millennium, it boasted great skyscrapers and vast conglomerates while still maintaining its old world charm. Air cars, private and public, raced along carefully regulated lanes in the skies, while oxen-drawn wagons and handcarts rolled through clean boulevards. Cries to prayer rang from the various temples throughout the city, alongside billboards advertising their ecclesiastical wares.
Delphi Market was the melting pot of Earth and alien culture. Pepper pot stews and curry were hawked next to stoocha root and granth steaks. Grrrscnk would grumble good naturedly (they thought :) “I cannot fathom why you monkeys insist on burning delicious meat before you eat!”
Bolts of cloth, gems and jewelry, sublime and prosaic knick-knacks and gewgaws, it was all there. Music from dozens of world filled the air, from graceful lilting to teeth grinding screeches and howls. Aerialists hung from ledges and lamp posts performing acts of derring-do. Street performers blew fire, juggled, sang songs and told jokes. Magicians marveled with cards and coins, scarfs changing into canes or beasts.
Pickpockets and other criminals preyed on the tight crowds. The police were ever-present, more inclined to keep order than monitor low level criminal activity. But woe to the being who was caught with their hand (or whatever appendage they had to use) in the pocket of another. Indian law frowned heavily on thieves.
That particular Saturday, they were pushing their way through the crowds, arguing as always about the latest law or news story back home, whether Ankara or Hecht. It was mostly good natured chatter between young friends on a beautiful day.
And then Angkor saw her.
He happened to turn toward the tea seller in the sari of seafoam green, just as she also turned to face him. She was nearly as tall as Angkor, fair skinned to his swarthy. She gasped under her breath at the sight of him, then found her voice. “Tea, Sahib?”
He felt foolish, standing there staring at her. Her features were Hindi, long face tapering into a pointed chin. She had a golden halo of surprising soft, curly blonde hair. Her eyes were crystalline blue, perfect almond shaped that startled his heart. Her brow raised as she leaned nearer to him. “Tea? Sahib, would you like some tea?” she asked as speaking to a child.
“Tea? Ah, uh, yes, I would like some tea. Yes, please,” Angkor fumbled. Her thin lips formed into a shy smile as a paper cup emerged from her bag. She wore a plastic jug on her back and poured the warm drink through its hose, offering lemon and sugar as she twisted to face him again. Afraid to speak, Angkor just nodded, admiring her lithe form as she prepared his drink. She handed the cup to him and held her thin, delicate, ringless hand out.
“Three rupees, Sahib.”
He handed her his credit chip, her pale hand ran it through the scanner at her belt and she smiled again, melting Angkor’s young heart. Before he could speak, she had bowed and gracefully melted back into the crowd.
“An interesting looking monkey,” hissed Grrrscnk. “Is the she a friend of yours?”
“What? No, just a street vendor,” Angkor answered. “Oh, my, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Oh, yes, delicious,” grumbled Grrrscnk.
Xaid, Dawlish and Salaam appeared. “Hey, who’s your friend?” asked Salaam.
“A tea girl,” responded Angkor.
“What’s her name?” pressed Salaam. “She’s very pretty.”
Confusion swept across Angkor’s face. “I-I don’t know,” he said, “I forgot to ask.”
Dawlish shook his head. “Angkor, my friend, you are going to die a virgin.” He stretched his long frame above the crowd, spied the tea girl and moved to her. A few minutes later he had a steaming cup of tea, and information.
“Her name is Sophia; she is a resident of the city,” he reported. “She is eighteen and hopes to get a job as a secretary or receptionist.” He took a sip of tea and made a face. “A new job would be a good idea,” he moaned as he spat it out. “This is horrible! Oh, and for whatever reason, she thinks Angkor is cute.”
Dawlish straightened. “Clearly, if she finds a lowly Mongolian preferable to a magnificent Turk man…” his voice trailed off, a sparkle in his eye.
Angkor sipped the tea. It was terrible, too cold and too much lemon. But he imagined he could detect her aroma on the cup. Inhaling deeply, he said, “It’s not so bad. Come on, we’re here to shop; let’s go shopping.”
Try as he might, Angkor couldn’t get the tea girl out of his mind. Her Hindi face with such pale skin and blond hair was so unusual. He would lie in his bed, staring at the ceiling, visualizing her lovely face and blue eyes.
He struggled in his classes all week. Normally, he could push distractions to one side while studying. Not this girl. Sophia! Such a lovely name. “English,” he thought. But how would an English girl look Hindi?
The end of the week finally arrived. Without waiting for his friends, Angkor raced to the market on Saturday morning. Two hours and he was beginning to feel desperate when he felt a tug on his sleeve.
“Tea, Sahib?” She stood there, in a blue sari, a faint smile on her face. He stood as stone again, dumbfounded and staring. She was every bit as beautiful as he remembered. “Would you like some tea?” she asked again.
“Tea, yes, I would like some tea,” he stammered. Her smile got bigger and she pulled the cup from her bag, poured the tea and added lemon. She added a bit of honey and handed him the drink. The tea was worse than the week before. He grimaced.
“I am sorry, Sahib,” she said, lowering her head. “My master reuses the leaves; it makes the tea weak and bitter. Please, take this poor cup for free.”
“No, it is fine,” he lied. He handed her his credit chip. “Please, take the money. I do not wish to cause you trouble.”
She nodded and scanned his card. “Thank you, Sahib. Your kindness for this poor girl is more than generous.”
Angkor struggled to find just the right words. He swallowed and stammered, “Think nothing of it.”
He shifted from foot to foot, looking up and down, tasting words and then discarding them. He wanted to be glib, he wanted to appear confident. He looked into her crystalline blue eyes and felt his courage sink. “Yes?” she queried. Her mouth opened slightly, her eyes expecting.
“I, uh…um,” he was frantic now, “Uhhh…”
Her face fell. “I have to go now,” she said. “I must sell the rest of my tea and pay my master for the jar for today.”
“Wait!” he cried. He brushed his hands on his pants, then held one out. “I am Angkor, son of Tenzing.”
She took his hand. “I am pleased to meet you, Angkor, son of Tenzing,” she replied. “I am Sophia Marshall. Perhaps I shall see you again here at the market another time.”
She released his hand and strolled away. She looked over her shoulder and mouthed, “’bye.”
Angkor watched her back until she disappeared into the crowd. “She certainly has nice hips,” he decided.
“I cannot believe how stupid you monkeys are!” Grrrscnk tossed another piece of meat in her mouth and smacked her jaws as she chewed. “The Hecht way is much better.”
“How is that?” argued Salaam, “How would you know? I have never seen you with a Hecht male, so just how do you know your Hecht way is better?”
Angkor’s friends had found him at the market. They were eating lunch at one of the few eateries that would serve raw meat for a Hecht. (Although many patrons left when the seven-foot meat eater entered.) They were discussing Angkor’s failure that morning with the tea girl, Sophia.
Grrrscnk snapped her jaw in irritation. “Hecht females select their mates when they are ready to lay eggs. She selects the male and they fffschrt. He then builds the nest and the female lays the eggs. Both take care of the eggs until they hatch. The male hunts when the first egg starts to hatch. He must bring food, because we are born hungry.”
She chomped down another piece of meat. “My father failed to have food when I escaped the shell. So I ate my first brother as he hatched.”
Her friends made faces and voiced disgust. “What did your father do when he returned?” asked Salaam.
“Mother took his kill to feed me,” Grrrscnk responded. “It was clear he was inferior, therefore his male children were inferior as well. Mother drove him away, along with his inferior sons.”
“So, how is that better?” pressed Dawlish.
“Silly monkey!” Grrrscnk chuckled. “Look how selecting a mate has unsettled friend Angkor. Hecht do not get unsettled. If the male is unworthy, then he is driven off. Mother than raised me as the superior Hecht female to who you see today.” She ripped a mouthful of loin, and chewed noisily, her snout in the air, blood running from the corners of her mouth.
“I’m not looking to mate with Sophia,” Angkor protested. “I just think she’s very pretty.”
His friends hooted and laughed, (in Grrrscnk’s case, snapped jaws.) “Angkor,” chortled Xaid, “if you were any more obsessed with this girl, I’d say you were in love.”
“How can that be?” answered Angkor, “I can barely speak to her.”
“I repeat, friend Angkor, you’re going to die a virgin,” laughed Dawlish. “Listen, go find her this afternoon and walk with her. Don’t think what to say, just walk with her and listen. She’ll ask questions; just answer her honestly and ah-HA! You’ll have a conversation.”
“Do you really think that will work?” Angkor was anxious.
Xaid slapped him on the back of the head. “Quit thinking,” he admonished. “Just go talk to her.”
Grrrscnk tossed another bloody haunch into her mouth. “Take her to get something to eat,” she suggested.
He found her near the restaurant. “Hello Sophia Marshall,” he said, with the slightest tremor.
“Angkor! Son of Tenzing. How wonderful to see you!” her voice was as radiant as her smile.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Please, “he answered, “and, uh, may I walk with you?”
She lowered her gaze as she prepared his tea. “I would like that very much, yes.” They walked for hours. In silence at first. Then she asked him about school. He told her of University and of Angkor wat, where he had spent so many years. “How did you come to be named for the school?” she asked.
He explained the naming day ceremony and of his people, the Khalkha. He told her of growing up on the steppe and mountains in a yurt with his mother. His chest puffed as her spoke of his father, now headman of Mongolia and soon to be Chairman of the Earth Council.
“And, Sophia,” he asked, “tell me how a Hindi girl came to have an English name?”
“My grandmother, Sophia, came from London…” she explained. Grandmother had moved to Delhi to attend school, where she met Sophia’s grandfather. Her own mother had been as dark as any Hindi, but Sophia had come out pale and blonde. Her parents and grandparents had doted on the curly haired child. Sadly, the rest of her family and neighbors did not. Classmates would pull on her locks. Small boys had held her down and poured ink in her hair.
Normally, even in modern times, a middle class girl in Calcutta would have been betrothed by sixteen. Try as he might, Sophia’s father couldn’t find a suitable husband for his daughter. Eager suitors would meet the pale, blonde girl and not return. Heartbroken, she had fled to Delhi, determined to make a life for herself and perhaps one day find a good man.
Despite Delhi’s modern and cosmopolitan image, there were few opportunities for a girl like Sophia to succeed. To be sure, men (and a few women) had made unsavory advances on the girl. She never wavered and resolutely applied for every honest job she could find. The tea jar she carried paid poorly and she often went to bed hungry, but it was an honest day’s labor.
Before either of them noticed, evening began to fall. Sophia had to return the jar. Angkor followed her to the storefront of her employer, a dour little man with a pinched face and bandy extremities. He complained about her meager earnings for the day.
“Perhaps if you gave her better tea to sell, she would make better money for you, old man,” Angkor cut in to the tea man’s complaining.
“She will sell what I give her!” the tea man shouted. “If she would smile pretty and use her charms, she would sell more tea. Walking about with a barbarian such as yourself doubtlessly scared off her customers. Who are you anyway, young pup?”
“I am Angkor son of…” Angkor started in a loud voice, then quieted. “I am Angkor and Sophia is a friend of mine. You are worried about money? Here, here is the money you think I cost her for walking with her friend. Maybe now you will give her a fresh jar to sell instead of that week old swill.” He threw his credit chip at the old man.
The seedy merchant fumbled the chip, caught it and rubbed it in his fingers. He swiped it, then handed it back to Angkor. “Thank you, young man,” he said, “but she will sell what I give her.”
Angkor stiffened. Sophia placed her hand on his chest. “Angkor, go,” she ordered. “Let me handle this. Thank you for a wonderful conversation; we’ll talk later.”
Outside, Angkor seethed. “If he so much as looks at you improperly...” he began.
yes, I know,” she answered, “Truly, thank you for a
wonderful afternoon.” She kissed him on the mouth and hurried