Of Shadows and Storm

Eshente stepped through the night. Her footfalls beat a soft cadence against the backdrop of chirruping bugs and in the distance she could hear the soft grumble of a storm building. Clouds had been gathering overhead for some time and no moonlight shone through. It was mostly dark. Only a few households were still awake and even then, the light that spilled across the sidewalk was soft and pale; filtering through closed curtains before it could escape into the night. Eshe could hear sounds from within the buildings, but they were quiet sounds. The last of the dinner plates being dried and packed away. The soft chink of wine glasses. The sultry chuckle of a lover and the grumbling snore of someone already deep in sleep.

Eshe pulled up the hood of her cloak and plunged her hands into her pockets. It wasn’t cold. The night was pleasant enough for this late in the season, but Eshe should not have been out this late. Eshe should not have been alone.

A flap of leathery wings and a high pitched screech had Eshe jumping on the spot. She looked up, her breath hitching from the sudden fright. A massive, black mass moved in the palm fronds above her.

Eshe took a steadying breath.

Just a fruit bat.

The fruit bats were enormous and loud and slightly terrifying when they dropped from their perches before spreading their wings and swooping low, but ultimately, they were nothing to worry about.

Eshe let out her breath, shook her nerves free and started along the sidewalk once more.

She had not even made it five steps when a hand clamped over her mouth and an arm grabbed her waist. Eshe screamed, but the sound was lost against calloused fingers. She tried to pull away, but her attacker only held on tighter. Eshe was pressed into her assailant’s body. A body that was much larger than Eshe’s. Eshe screamed again. A hopeless act. She pulled her knees up to her chest. The sudden shift of weight threw the attacker off guard, but not enough. Eshe dropped to the ground. She felt the grip release, but she was too slow getting up. Too slow to scream for help. Hands grabbed for Eshe and she was ripped backward once more.Back into a wall of muscle. Back to the hand over her mouth. Eshe tried to fight, but her arms were pinned and her attacker wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. They held Eshe high now, her feet just skimming the ground and they were walking backward, taking Eshe to whatever hellish end they had chosen.
Eshe could not break free.

Tears blossomed.

I’ll be at the palace, Cherise. There is no safer place. Don’t bother Unam. I’m sure he has far more important work than following me around.

Had it been only that morning that Eshe had spoken those words to her maid? A lie. She had not meant for the words to be a lie, but the princess had been different today. Every other summons to the palace had been for only an hour or two. Gossip over tea. A stroll in the gardens.
Those trips had been boring for Unam. Playing chaperone for the noble ladies was a waste. Eshe had only been trying to spare him the agony of small talk and tea cakes.

And now look at what had happened. If Eshe didn’t… if she…

Unam would never forgive himself. Cherise would think it her fault for not insisting enough.

A huge sob wracked Eshe’s body. She threw her arms about again, but the attempt was feeble. She knew she couldn’t win.

A hot breath squirmed against Eshe’s neck. Her attacker leaned in close. The voice was low. Barely more than a whisper. Eshe pulled her head away as best she could.

“Shh. The less you struggle, the easier this will be. I’m sorry.”

Eshe grimaced. What kind of an attacker apologised to their victims?

The kind that wants you docile.

Eshe whimpered again. They were off the main street and down some dark alley. No light filtered onto this sidewalk. No sounds of life echoed from beyond the walls. Eshe felt her captor stop. A brief thud of what must have been the back of their foot against a door and then the alley was fading from view as Eshe was dragged into a darkened room.

“Shh,” her attacker said again, but this time she was lowering Eshe to the ground. Their journey, it seemed, had come to an end. Eshe’s butt pressed into cold stone, but still the grip did not slacken.

“I’m sorry, again, that it had to happen like this, but we need to talk and I couldn’t have anyone knowing that we met.”

A pause. A sigh. “Please don’t scream.”

The hand lifted from Eshe’s mouth and the attacker stepped back, leaving Eshe sitting on the floor. Eshe scrambled to her feet and brought her hands up in loose fists. She had barely any combat training. Mother was horrified that Eshe had any at all and now, standing in this room, already defeated she understood that her father’s little compromise had been just that. Little. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Any of it.

You shouldn’t have to be Esh! – Her mother’s voice.

Eshe swallowed her fear and faced her abductor, but the room was dark and she spoke only to shadows.

“What do you want with me?” Her voice shook as much as her hands.

There was a small click and then light rushed into the room. Eshe threw a hand over her eyes and squinted at the sudden brightness. She heard more than saw the body shifting closer again.

“To talk,” was all the woman said. And she was a woman. A fact Eshe hadn’t been able to discern in the struggle or in the whispered words. Eshe blinked her eyes a few times as they slowly adjusted to the light and then she gasped.

“You’re… you’re one of Princess Dekali’s personal guard!”

Eshe stepped back. Had she done something wrong? Had she lost the princess’ favour this easily? The guard must have seen the look of panic that flooded Eshe’s face because she stepped forward and said. “I am not here on behalf of the princess.”

“Then why…”

Eshe watched the guard wearily. One hand snaking toward a door handle that was much too far away. The other still hovering near her face where it was guaranteed to be useless. This woman was a giant. Impossible to forget. She was all lean muscle and sharp angles. Ash white hair cropped short to her skull and eyes that were a fierce, ice blue. McGallen. Princess Dekali had called her McGallen and Eshe had to admit that she had found it hard to stay focused on the conversation when McGallen was in the room. Her eyes had kept roaming toward the statuesque guard.

“Because I need your help,” McGallen finally said. She was watching Eshe intently, but she had made no further move.

Eshe swallowed. “With what?” Her eyes darted around the room, but what she was looking for, she could not say.

“A matter that I hope is of mutual interest.”

McGallen paused, took a deep breath and then launched into an explanation.

“I was watching you today, at the cages.”

Eshe felt an involuntary blush creep into her cheeks. She had been watching McGallen too, but that had been before McGallen had kidnapped her! Eshe schooled her emotions. McGallen continued to talk.

“I noted your… discomfort. You did not like what you saw.”

“I…” Eshe tried to think of some way to excuse herself, but McGallen spoke over her. “I will remind you that I am not here on behalf of the princess.” McGallen took a step closer. Her expression softened. A sadness crept across her features. “I share in your discomfort.”

“Oh.”

Eshe dropped her defensive pose and looked at the guard. Really looked. She was tensed. Afraid. What must it be to admit to a noble woman, to anyone, that she did not approve of the Princess’ hobbies? It was Eshe’s turn to step forward.

McGallen closed her eyes for just a heartbeat. When she opened them, the sadness had been replaced by steel.

“The princess relishes in the suffering of those creatures. I do not. She thinks it sport to bait and tease them. As one of her personal guard…

I see these acts far more frequently than I can stomach them.”

Eshe swallowed hard. She shook her head. “I’m sorry McGallen. I have no power to stop it. You should know that.”

McGallen took a few more steps, closing the gap between them. “But you can. With help. With us. You can make the difference.”

Us. There were more of them. “But why do you need me?” Eshe asked.

“Because you’re a noble. You have connections.”

McGallen glowed. “With your help,” she said. “We can save the dragons from the Princess.”

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Graveyard Shift

Josh breathed in the heady scent of roast coffee beans.

He had taken the two weeks of Christmas and New Years off. The manager had been less than pleased. It was a busy time of year and near impossible to find a replacement. Nobody wanted the graveyard shift on a normal night and when the promise of parties and wild revelry were afoot, they wanted it even less. Josh hadn’t wanted to go to the parties. Josh was never driven by want. He responded only to need and in that moment he had needed to escape the noise and the bodies and the confusion. He didn’t do well around people. He didn’t do well around anything. If Josh could have gotten away with it, he would not have had a job at all, but he had rent to pay and he preferred not to starve. The 24hr coffee shop and its twilight hours were an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

Except over the Christmas rush, but New Years had come and gone. The populace had returned to their beds (mostly) and the coffee shop had returned to relative peace.

Josh drowned in rich aroma.

The doors wushed open. Josh looked up. He expected noise. A cacophony of drunken camaraderie in search of caffeine and day old carbs, but the man and woman who entered the coffee shop were silent and alert. The man strode up to the counter. His stride confident; haunting. It was at once breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying. The woman remained just inside the door. Her eyes slowly swept across the shop, like she was taking every last detail in and then she turned and joined the man at the counter. She stopped with her body half facing Josh and half facing the small arrangement of tables and chairs that made up the sit-down portion of 24hr Java. The woman rested an elbow against the counter and arched her back. A languid jungle cat drinking in sunlight. Josh felt his skin prickle. He could almost hear her purring, could almost imagine the man giving off a low, throaty growl. Josh’s ears filled with static. His heart thumped and sweat began to bead across his brow.

Dimly, Josh registered the sound of someone talking. It took a moment for him to realise that the man was trying to place an order. Josh startled himself out of his stupor, blinked his eyes back into focus and turned toward the man. He tried, he really tried to look the man in the eyes, but something dangerous lurked within those chestnut pools and he shied away. Josh spoke to the counter.

“S…orry. I didn’t get that?”

“No,” said the man. “You didn’t.” The man’s voice was light. Charming almost and yet, there was heat in the words. Josh felt them slowly ignite across his arms.

“I said I would like a Green tea for myself, large. Black for the Lady, also large. Don’t get fancy with it. It makes her grumpy.”

The woman shifted to stomp on the man’s foot. He side-stepped casually and gave Josh a wink. Josh stared where the man had been. His ears were doing that thing again. That thing where the world felt muffled. Where it felt like someone had pressed the mute button. Except, each sound was suddenly heard in isolation. An amplified focus surrounded by a void. Josh twitched. His heart charged down an 800m sprint. He closed his eyes and half spoke, half whispered. “Green tea. Large, black. Got it.”

He turned his back on the customers. He stared at gleaming steel.

How could two people make this much noise?

Josh shook his head. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to understand this. He just needed to survive it. Make the drinks. Take the money. Watch them go.

Josh reached for a takeaway cup. His fingers touched smooth cardboard and a shriek raked up his spine. Josh jerked away. Cups tumbled. A slow motion arc and then thud.

Thud.

Thud.

Each cup landing louder than it should. Each impact a jerk of limbs. A breath hitched in Josh’s throat. He reached for another cup. A slow breath out as he made contact. The cardboard sent another tremor through him, but Josh was expecting it this time. He held. The cup did not fall.

He fumbled the teabag into the cup and then turned to the urn. Drops of scalding water scattered onto his shaking hand. Josh ignored the bites of pain, smacked a lid onto the cup and turned to the coffee. Somehow, he managed to get that cup filled too. Somehow, he managed to turn and slide them across to the man and woman.

“Cash or card?”

The man held up his credit card. Josh punched the numbers and then slid the card reader toward the man. It was only a moment, a brief second in which the man held his card to the reader, but Josh felt the proximity like a storm. Every nerve lit up. Every hair on his body peaked. And then the machine beeped, the man pocketed his card and Josh pushed himself as far from the counter as he could get. A few more seconds and Josh could sink to the floor. He could curl into himself. He could curse and cry and come out on the other side again. Exhausted, but functional.

The man and the woman chose a table and sat down.

Josh whimpered. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Why hadn’t they left? Why get take-away coffee if you’re not planning to take-it-away?

A low pulse throbbed in his temples. The stark white of fluorescent bulbs became arrows and his eyes targets. Josh turned his head away, but still the light burned. He clenched his eyes shut. Heart thumping. Nerves burning. Josh flung his hands to his temples. His fists found hair and dug in. Josh folded, spine curved, chest sunk to stomach. Static rushed his ears.

Customers in the shop. Don’t loose it. Snap out of it. You can do this. You can do this.

Josh couldn’t do this.

A cry broke through. A sound of abject acceptance. Josh was an antelope caught within a lion’s maw.

He sank to the floor. The mess of paper cups welcomed his broken body. A mess of a man surrounded by the mess he had made. His body heaved. Cries rose and fell in the stutter between half swallowed breathes. There was nothing but this moment. This panic. This world with too much noise and Josh with too many nerves turned on. Feeling too much, hearing too much. It wouldn’t stop. Josh couldn’t make it stop.

Fingers wrapped around Josh’s hand. They were ice against his scalding skin. Another thing to feel. Too much. Josh jerked away, but the hand held steady.

“No… Stop…”

Josh did not have the strength to fight the grip, but then he stopped needing too. Someone had turned the volume down. Josh sank into the silence. His breathing eased. The tension in his head melted. Slowly, Josh eased his fingers out of his tangled hair. Nerve endings went back to sleep and somehow, Josh’s body settled into equilibrium. It was a state unlike any he had ever know. Josh inhaled and was filled with joy.

He opened his eyes. The woman knelt before him, her fingers still clasped around his hand. Josh felt her intent gaze, but it did not bother him. The man was there too, standing above them. He watched while he sipped his tea.

Josh looked at the woman.

“What… what did you do?”

“Nothing complicated,” she replied. Her gaze remained fixed on his eyes. She stared at him like he was a curiosity. Like some puzzle that needed solving.

“What’s a boy like you, doing in a place like this?”

Josh looked from the lady to the man and then back again. Her voice had the same curious inflection as her eyes, but that particular line was, well… “Is this… some kind of creepy… pickup? Are you…”

The man chuckled. “Jana is a straight to the point kind of lady. If she wanted to proposition you, you would know.”

Jana, the woman, did not acknowledge the question or the answer that followed. She continued her inspection, fingers never leaving Josh’s hand. What would happen if she let go? What was doing? How was she doing it?

“Then what is this?” Josh’s gaze flitted between them. Two strangers who had been too loud. Much too loud for just two people and then with a touch, they had taken it all away again. Who were they? What were they? The man waited. He sipped his tea. The woman inspected. It was as if they were waiting for Josh to share a secret, only no one had let him in on it.

Jana tilted her head.

“Would you look at that,” she said. “He doesn’t know what he is.”