Racism had its benefits. In the heart of the city, Juke's skin color and facial tattoos might have excluded him from the niceties of polite society, but here on the outskirts of town, for better or worse, it kept people away from him. It'd be the same every time: Juke would see a fair-skinned Jaidourean turn a corner or appear over the horizon, and then cross the street to pass on the other side. What threat did he look like he posed? He tried to smile, and let his body language reflect his pacifistic nature, but it did no good. Others in Jaidour had the whole palette of social interaction with which to color their relationships, but Juke, it often seemed, had only his dark skin to communicate with.
The outer limits of the city had become infested with fyre addicts. One taste of the drug would be enough to send an otherwise sane individual off the end of their rope. People would sell their houses, even their clothes, to sustain the deep, emotionless high the drug afforded. Twenty minutes of euphoria punctuated by holes in the brain, such heights never to be reached again. Juke hated coming out here, but it was worth it for him. It was where he found respite from the difference he was constantly reminded of.
Dazhi and Ertajj were the best friends he could have asked for, there was no doubt about that. They all bonded over their outsider status, traveling from squat to squat, together against the world. But no matter how close they would ever get, Juke's friends couldn't understand what it meant to be dark-skinned in Jaidour. They had never had old ladies jump in fright at seeing them, or had parents call their children back to them in fear when they passed too near them.
Juke's destination was a modestly kept mansion, built back when the city's richest used the upper valley for their summer homes. Many of the old houses had been torn down or simply fallen under their own weight, but there were enough vestiges of the past, in the form of stubbornly still-occupied houses, or overgrown statuary, to speak to the area's once-opulence.
With the secret knock of three quick pounds, two slow knocks, and three more pounds on the door, Juke gained entrance to the mansion with the chipping paint.
"Welcome!" greeted Koont, the smiling face behind the door. It, too was marked with the facial tattoos Juke wore, the Banowa. It was the mark of their people, the natives who had occupied the land long before the lighter-skinned people came to claim it as their own.
"Thank you, Koont," Juke said. He took off his shoes, as this was required during the weekly ceremonies.
A fat woman came waddling down a hallway to meet Juke, throwing her arms open to greet him.
"City boy!" she said with a laugh.
"Jalai, you old county mare. How have you been?"
Jalai was like a mother to Juke. She would send him off every week with food for him and his friends, and always made sure he had clothes to wear. Juke's adoptive parents had died when he was very young. All he remembered of them were their smiling faces, surrounded by locks of red hair. Sometimes he had to go to that memory, when too many of the fair faces he saw scorned him. It was all he had to keep from hating them as irrationally for their skin as they did for his.
During the weekly meetings, Juke and his friends were free to talk of the history of their people. He treasured each bit of information he would learn as a revelation of himself. The elders speaking of a time when things were quieter, when the gods stooped to speak, gave Juke a place to escape to, to hope for. It wasn't just an oral history, though; at the meetings they would dance and sing, drink and feast. The native food wasn't very good though, Juke thought, but then again he had grown up on the sweet and fatty foodstuffs of Protersian culture. Stringy jungle tubers and insects, he simply couldn't tolerate.
When that week's meeting was over, too soon as it always was, Jalai sent Juke off with his customary parcel of fruits and wadwah, a bread that was probably the only native food that Juke and his friends enjoyed. Juke hated leaving this place, of comfort and familiarity, but he considered how many other people lived their whole lives without experience such a thing even once and felt lucky.
It was some while before Juke was brought down from his day-dreams about ancient virtue and his once-great people. It didn't take much, though, just a group of snickering children laughing at him and calling names. They couldn't have been even fifteen, Juke thought. They couldn't even understand what they were doing.
Or perhaps they did. Perhaps some people were so stupid that they really thought someone could be defined by the color of their skin, that one of the five simple senses given to them by nature was only for such differentiation. At least there was another meeting next week. And his friends. They saw his color, but didn't care. What would he be without them?