No one knew where the woman had come from. She’d just shown up one day, dragging a battered, grimy, once-upon-a-time-red wagon. The child’s toy was filled to overflowing with what, we supposed, was her life. There was a tattered blue blanket, whispers of bunnies floating across the edge. A few books, missing covers and, probably, pages, shoved on top of an enormous pair of men’s scuffed loafers. Peeking from the pile, several socks went unmatched, each with the other. We were sure there was more, but discomfort kept anyone from asking, or looking too hard at the haggard woman’s possessions.
The day the woman walked into town was a special day for us. Patron’s Day. Once a year, the town’s Patrons, those with something to teach, chose a new apprentice. Citizens chosen during the ceremony were required to do exactly one year of service for their Patron, but no Citizen could do more than one year unless their Patron chose them again. Continued Patronage was rare. It’d only happened twice in the history of our town, long before any of the current Patrons had begun their Patronage.
No one expected the woman to be chosen. After all, she wasn’t a Citizen. She was a wanderer, probably someone running from her own Patron, from another town. As usual, there were more Citizens than there were Patrons, so some Citizens would have to spend the year doing the menial jobs that no one ever wanted. Someone suggested that we should let the beggar woman do one of the labors, freeing up a Citizen or two. The one who suggested it spoke up just before the Patrons entered the town square, so there wasn’t any time to agree or even talk about the idea.
The Patrons gathered together on the north side of the square, in whatever order they had decided on amongst themselves. We Citizens milled around the south side, mostly, although a few braver souls, hoping their current Patrons would see them, sidled around the edges to stand on the east and west sides of the town center. The closer the town’s Big-Ben inspired clock ticked to noon, the more nervous the crowd became. Sounds of shuffling and nervous chattering floated in the stale, still midday air. The mayor, the least of the Patrons, stepped to the Patron’s dais and threw his hands up just as the clock struck twelve. The crowd immediately quieted, waiting for the first Citizen to be called to Patronage, apprenticing to the mayor himself.
The day’s choosing began slowly, the lesser Patrons not having put in as much thought to who would be their new apprenticed Citizens. As the day went on, and the importance of the Patrons grew, the choosing picked up. These Patrons had been thinking on apprentices for quite some time.
The stranger hung near the edges of the crowd, trying not to attract attention. She moved, quickly, pulling her belongings in the red wagon, when the group thinned near her. Most of the Citizens had forgotten she was there, too caught up in the excitement of the day to care to remember a filthy interloper. None of the Patrons called for an extended Patronage of their current Citizen apprentices. A very lucky few, however, did get chosen by new Patrons.
The choosing was nearly finished by dusk. Only two of the Patrons were left to call apprentices, and of those, one hadn’t had an apprentice in years. He was ancient, the highest of the Patrons, a recluse who preferred to work alone, never bothering to pass on his knowledge to any Citizen.
Many in the crowd of Citizens began to drift away before the last Patron stepped to the dais. The wizened man cleared his throat, not loudly, just enough to gain the notice of the Citizens nearest him. Buzzing raced through the crowd, Citizens whispering, wondering why, at last, this Patron was choosing someone to apprentice.
A name was called. A name no one knew. The beggar woman shrank back from the crowd. People turned to face her. She shook her head, denying the call from her Patron. But the Citizens nearest her wouldn’t let her refuse. They pushed her forward, forcing her, inch by inch, through the widening avenue of people to face her fate. The woman no one knew bowed her head, accepting the apprenticeship.
Patrons with apprenticed Citizens strode from the square. Disappointed Citizens, who were now relegated to menial labor for the year, shuffled away, muttering amongst themselves. The surprise choosing irritated quite a few of the Citizens. Never mind that the Patron who chose her hadn’t chosen any Citizen in years. It was the simple fact that an outsider was chosen instead of a hard-working Citizen of the town.
Most of the Patrons and apprenticed Citizens were seen later in the evening, at the Patron’s feast. Only one was missing. The new High Patron was a scrubbed, perfectly coiffured woman, new to the town.