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Calling Steam Santa (Part 2 of 5)

Seven-year-old Mariah Lanfier had argued long and hard to convince her parents that she was old enough, and responsible enough, to participate in this year’s watch.  Finally, though, she had worn them down, and they had agreed to allow her three one-hour sessions on afternoons of her choice.  She’d already been out two days ago, with her friend Ima.

Mariah had spent many stolen minutes throughout the early days of winter in scouting out the perfect place to stand her watch – and she had found it.  It didn’t appear to be very sheltered, but due to peculiarities in wall and tower placement, and the prevailing winds during winter, it actually wasn’t too bad.  She and Ima had stood their hour-long watch there, and her company had helped to make the hour pass quickly.  Today, though, Ima had to help her mother, Mrs. Writer, in the millinery shop, so Mariah would keep this vigil alone.

As she mounted the stairs that led to the top of the wall, she nodded a greeting at a much older boy who was going down.  He gave her a quick lookover, and nodded back, smiling.  The older boys and girls of New Babbage, when they could, would help out the vigil by keeping order among the watchers, settling any arguments about who got what space, and enforcing the one hard and fast rule – no telescopes, binoculars, or far-seeing devices of any sort, since most children couldn’t afford to buy or make them.  (Regular glasses, of course, were all right, so long as they were the usual prescription for those who needed them.)

Rumor had it that one boy, a number of years ago, had managed to smuggle a pair of binoculars with him, and had spotted Steam Santa by using them.  Rumor had it that Steam Santa, at the gathering, had called him out on it, and that he and his family had had to move away from New Babbage shortly thereafter to escape the scandal.  Mariah wasn’t sure how true the rumors were, but she wouldn’t have taken any chances, even if she’d had access to anything like that.

She made her way to her chosen spot, seeing a boy stationed further down the wall.  On her other side, a girl was standing near the staircase entrance, but she left after a few moments.  Within seconds, another girl, one who looked to be about Mariah’s own age, had taken her place.  Mariah saw that she was wearing the plain brown homespun dress that marked the female residents of the nearby orphanage.  Though her position was exposed to the wind, the girl didn’t seem like she’d do too badly.  A somewhat worn, but still serviceable, cloak was draped across her shoulders, and a long scarf enclosed her head and neck.  The wool socks that peeked above her boots were garish and mismatched – evidently the effort of someone just learning how to knit – but certainly looked warm enough.  The hands that clutched the cloak close to her, however, were completely bare.  Mariah turned her eyes out toward the horizon again, scanning her view, but she couldn’t erase the slight frown on her face, or remove the sight of those bare hands from her memory.

Mariah glanced over at the orphan girl from time to time, as the minutes of her allotted hour ticked away.  She did indeed seem to be doing all right… except for her hands.  She was frequently switching between blowing into them and rubbing them together, and keeping them tucked under her arms as best she could.  Mariah was conscious of the warmth of her own hands, and felt a little guilty.

Her parents discouraged her from giving directly to beggars and urchins – though not because they were against charitable giving.  Far from it!  But her father insisted that it was better to give to the organizations that helped the indigent, like the orphanages or the Church of the Builder.  “They know where the needs are,” he always said, “and can make sure what is given isn’t wasted.”

Mariah could understand that, but she liked the connection that came, if only for a few seconds, with giving directly to someone, on the few occasions she’d managed to slip a coin to someone without her parents seeing it.  In this case… well, she certainly couldn’t *give* away her gloves.  She couldn’t hide that from her parents, and besides, she needed them herself, as the only other pair she currently had was too small.  But perhaps Mariah could *lend* them to the girl, until she had to go home?  It wouldn’t hurt to suggest it, anyway.

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